Album Review: Julien Baker, ‘Little Oblivions’

    More so than many of her indie rock counterparts, it’s almost impossible not to recognize some part of yourself in Julien Baker’s music. The Tennessee singer-songwriter offered an easy way in, laying her inner demons bare on her 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, before coating her self-lacerating lyrics in the refined minimalism of 2017’s breakout Turn Out the Lights. A year later, she formed a powerhouse trio called boygenius with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, two songwriters who rose to prominence around the same time as her. Though it made entirely too much sense, some might not have guessed that Baker’s brand of introspective songwriting could have the same impact in a more collaborative context. But as she tells it, the stripped-back nature of her debut was almost incidental: she originally wanted to record the songs with Forrister, the Memphis band she was playing with at the time, but they couldn’t get off work, and she didn’t want to waste studio time. “Those songs are just things I cobbled together alone in college because I didn’t have my boys with me,” she said in a recent interview. “To me it sounds like a scratch track where all the instruments are missing.”

    Fast forward to January 2021, and the now 25-year-old, usually a solitary presence on stage, is playing The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with a full-band that includes Matt Gilliam from Forrister on drums. She’s performing ‘Faith Healer’, the lead single off her third album, Little Oblivions, which embraces that full-band sound and expands her palette in bolder and more noticeable ways than Turn Out the Lights did. The revitalized approach creates exciting new dynamics that will no doubt sound great live, but what’s more intriguing on record is that Baker handled most of the instrumentation herself, with some unspecified “additional instrumentation” by engineer Calvin Lauber. This is more than just a fleshing-out of her sound – rather than hiding in the layers of guitars, bass, synths, and drums, she uses them to carve new spaces that accentuate not just the bracing intimacy of her songwriting but also its emotional intensity and depth. Even when songs like ‘Hardline’, ‘Faith Healer’, ‘Ringside’ reach soaring heights that lend credence to Baker’s claim that “we’re basically a post rock band now”, they’re not meant to offer an emotional release as much as evoke the constant push-and-pull of striving for some form of escape and trying not to give in to your most destructive impulses.

    Both in her music and in a seemingly endless series of interviews, Baker has been incredibly open about her struggles with substance abuse and mental illness and how they inform her new record. More than ever before, the music feels like a vehicle rather than a cushion for her achingly vulnerable lyrics and raw, powerful vocals: “I can see where this is going, but I can’t find the brakes,” she sings on opener ‘Hardline’, and though the album never quite veers off course to indicate a total loss of control, Baker nails the looming feeling of never knowing when you just might sink into that hopeless state – she even hints at that disintegrating sense of self on ‘Repeat’, where her vocals become increasingly distorted as she loops the titular word until it merges with the instrumental. ‘Heatwave’ is at first a jaunty, delicate tune complete with banjo and a sprightly synth melody, before shifting gears halfway through to subtly mirror the downward spiral that Baker sings about as she promises to “wrap Orion’s belt around my neck/ And kick the chair out.”

    Though it all still sounds exceptionally pretty and tastefully arranged, the production never undercuts the bleakness of Baker’s confessionals as much as it reveals the urgency to build something beautiful out of it. But for the most part, Baker lets go of the impulse to offer some semblance of hope or resolution – as the final track on Turn Out the Lights did – and is more interested in sincere expression than attempting to tie up a narrative that’s inherently messy and non-linear. Her lyrics are more confrontational and ruthlessly self-critical: “What if it’s all black, baby, all the time?” she posits as soon as the record starts; on ‘Favor’, an ode to friendship in which she’s joined by her boygenius bandmates, she asks, “What right had you not to let me die?” Rather than deflecting blame, she accepts all of it (“I wish that I drank because of you and not only because of me”) while shielding herself from empathy (“It’s too kind of you to say you can help/ But there’s no one around who can save me from myself”).

    Julien Baker’s music may not have lost any of its uncomfortable honesty, but one of her gifts as a songwriter is that she remains approachable even at her most heart-wrenching. It’s why, even as she digs into the most disturbing nuances of her experience, honing her strengths as both a storyteller and a vocalist, Little Oblivions never becomes a particularly difficult listen, and it never alienates the listener. Baker doesn’t wallow in despair or self-pity, but she also doesn’t set her harsh self-reflections against a sweeping canvas in order to give the false impression of achieving triumph or redemption. Underneath it all is a self-aware portrait of survival in the midst of personal crisis, and if there’s a battle the album proves she’s won, it’s that of staying true to yourself – even when you’re not exactly sure what that entails, or where it leaves you. And if her music continues to serve as a conduit for catharsis, it’s in tracing that journey – not necessarily relating to the trauma itself – that it retains a visceral resonance.

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