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Review: Julien Baker’s ‘Little Oblivions’

CW: Mentions of alcoholism, substance abuse.

Julien Baker certainly wasn’t looking for new themes when she wrote Little Oblivions; deep inside a familiar crisis back in 2019, she sought fresh paths out of old problems. The result is an album that radically reimagines her sound, and instead of compromising the original magic that’s captivated audiences since 2015, richer instrumentation has only added to her music’s emotional possibilities.

The album’s lead single ‘Faith Healer’ made me gasp when it was first released midway through lockdown. Driven by almost-polyrhythmic drum beats and meticulously produced, one would be forgiven to mistake it for the work of another artist entirely. Baker’s rise to cult stardom through her two previous albums saw her music repeatedly described as intimate, bare-bone, indefensibly heartbreaking: she takes ‘sad girl indie’ to church and wrings out the genre’s most precocious confessions, then reveals them unembellished over acoustic guitar and piano. Critics repeatedly noted that listening to Sprained Ankle and Turn Out The Lights can feel like a ‘violation of her privacy.’

Little Oblivions, then, is a battle diary published long after nadir itself, with retrospective editing. The full-band sound makes it extremely listenable, and Baker’s silvery voice is snugly at home amidst metallic textures. The last 60 seconds of ‘Repeat’ are a sonically immaculate reminder of her proficiency as a rock musician, so unlike the singer-songwriter of years past yet eerily familiar in its final tremble. ‘Song in E’ is most reminiscent of her earlier work, but with a movie-soundtrack expansiveness accompanying subtle modulations. The secrets in the attic are now playing out on a theatre stage, with fresh hues brightening old idiosyncrasies.

A side effect of such personally revealing songwriting is that the music and the human are no longer separable. Baker simply cannot claim that any of her songs are entirely fictional, and it’s easy for media to fixate on her identity: at 25, she’s the lesbian-Christian-socialist bandmate of Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, whose solo career melds an evangelical upbringing with alt-punk and insights on sobriety. (I recommend looking up her coming out story, if you’re in need of some hopefulness.) The opening track, ‘Hardline’, encapsulates her candid musical philosophy: with caustic chords on the organ setting the album’s tone, she sinks to the bottom of her register to beg for forgiveness before soaring an octave higher to kick off an acerbic chorus:

Until then I’ll split the difference

Between medicine and poison

When Baker discusses substance abuse in interviews, I catch myself thinking of a John Mulaney line: ‘I don’t look like someone who used to do anything. … I look like I was just sitting in a room in a chair eating Saltines for like 28 years and then I walked right out here.’ Especially in light of recent worrying news about Mulaney, perhaps it’s uncharitable to draw a comparison to Baker. Yet there is a similar incongruence between appearance and experience in both artists’ work: outwardly projecting youthful, white-American sprightliness, the revelation of past addiction still has shock value.

In Little Oblivions, Baker skillfully treads honesty without exploitation: while multiple songs on the album open with her intoxicated or unconscious, she spins a kaleidoscope of aftermaths and emotions. The listener may not relate to the exact same experience, but who among us has not reckoned with the fallouts of our own mistakes? Are not bouts of guilt and self-loathing part of the human condition? Little Oblivions frankly explains that being ‘good’ is impossibly difficult, that failing the expectations of others is as hard as accepting their mercy, and that to ‘climb down off of the cross’ can be authenticity rather than betrayal.

Does talking about God and alcohol in song after song ever get tiresome? Sometimes; Baker’s favourite lyrical devices are familiar to long-time fans, to the point where the rhymes get predictable. But what keeps bringing me back to Little Oblivions are all the colours of gratitude, if not joy, that Baker unearths. With an eye for dark humour, she conjures up a buoyant major-key melody in ‘Heatwave’ to announce:

I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck

And kick the chair out

If unabashed happiness is beyond reach, at least we’ll bask in beauty. Baker delineates darkness without indulging in it, always elevating self-critical reflections and complexity. Three albums later, she finally gives us a proper love song in ‘Relative Fiction’: despite detailing mankind’s endless capacity for harm, she can ‘run through the high-beams’ with someone and get wonderfully caught up in the moment:

I don’t need a saviour

I need you to take me home

Might she be addressing that to a lover, or Jesus, or even herself? It seems that against all odds, Baker holds bleakness and badassery at once. She is at her best when her victory comes effortlessly, no longer beholden to romanticized narratives of hope or misery. After the devastation of Sprained Ankle and Turn Out The Lights, Little Oblivions assures her audience that she’ll be okay. She doesn’t believe in hell anymore; instead, survival itself is mostly fine.
I can’t wait to hear a longer take on the ‘Crying Wolf’ guitar solo live someday, truncated by some bluesy improvisations sadly missing from the album. In the meantime, Little Oblivions has given us more than enough food for thought.

Image credit: Rebecca Sowell via Flickr and Creative Commons.

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