Singer-songwriter Julien Baker has always been a shockingly honest performer with songs so cathartic and visceral in their rendering that it allows listeners to set their baggage alongside hers as a means of escape. She lays it all so bare, so free for the taking and feeling that she makes it easy to think that her meditation on grief, sobriety and reckoning with one’s own ego is our own. She’s done the contemplation, the scrutinizing and the weathering for us. Little Oblivions, her strongest work in an already impressive career at only 25, is an astonishing work of reflection, refinement and artistry.
To listen to a Julien Baker song is to realize the growth a person possesses and how much work goes into feeling something that resembles being whole. She understands the cruel, insidious duality of addiction which can prop you up by the base of your neck while simultaneously wrapping its fingers around your throat. She seeks out the comfort of ecstasy while simultaneous dealing with the self-loathing that comes from the fallout.
Little Oblivions announces itself as the natural progression for the artist from the opening track, “Hardline” which rattles with the blares of an organ before progressing into more standard drum beats and guitar rhythms, a steady tempo that is the backbone for the remainder of the album. Similarly, she sets the tone lyrically, singing:
“Until then I’ll split the difference/Between medicine and poison/Take what I can get away with/While it burns right through my stomach”
The battle between sobriety, faith, and sexuality have all been explored in previous records by the artist, but there’s a change in the mood here bolstered by the backing band allowing for Baker to reach past the isolation of the previous two. While much of the album deals with setbacks, there’s a steely air of determination and defiance that gives the delicate vocals a sturdy backdrop.
Sonically the album diverts from her past offerings with a sound that is deliberately fuller, with Baker notably having recorded the majority of the instruments herself. Gone are the days of soft vocals over whispering guitars and belting over piano ballads; this time around, the sound grows in greater measures to be something more wholly voluminous while keeping a steadier pace rather than songs that rely on big dramatic moments of release.
The album’s lead single, “Faith Healer,” similarly explored new territory by delivering a catchy rock song, something that is followed up on by standout tracks such as the alternative country “Heatwave”, whose airy vibrancy gives away to some of the albums most desperate lyrics, with the line:
“I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck/And kick the chair out”
That dissonance between buoyant instrumentations and catchy hooks is similarly found elsewhere in the album and is utilized perfectly in one of the strongest songs on the album, “Ringside.” The dynamic, guitar-led song agonizes over the realities of mental illness that the singer grapples with, and is written with a sense of urgency. It crescendos into a line that sees the singer calling forth the religious imagery of Jesus’s Crown of Thorns worn at time of his crucifixion.
“So Jesus, can you help me now? Trade me in for a briar crown”
So coherent is the album that it’s difficult to pick just a handful of songs that best represent it and the new, natural progression the singer is taking. By replacing minimalism with a more expansive sound that is so often led by the drum beat, she’s created an album that is a necessary start-to-finish listening and worthy of multiple repeats. In her final two songs, “Highlight Reel” and “Ziptie,” she fully capitalizes on the mounting frustrations and dissatisfactions she’s spelt out for herself through the earlier songs. In “Highlight Reel,” she sees her past mistakes as a reel to look over and agonize with, but ultimately decides its best to watch those past transgressions in order to grow and move forward, just as she does with her music.
“Ziptie” is a stunner and one that upends expectations of something bombastic and definitively a closer. Instead, it leaves us on edge and uncertain, shining on a light on the fragility and imperfections of humanity.
Oh, good God/When you gonna call it off?/Climb down off of the cross/And change your mind?
This conclusion is, on surface level, bleak. With haunting and layered instrumentation and delicate vocal inflections that still possess a strength, makes these repeated lines feel less like a prayer and more a dare as she grapples with her faith and unmistakable fallibility she’s seen in herself and others.
Part of what makes Little Oblivions Bakers finest achievement to date is the complete cohesion from start to finish. Sprained Ankle was a raw act of isolated grief and grappling with her faith, while Turn out the Lights offered a rallying cry with notes that shook bones. Little Oblivions takes the poetry of Sprained Ankle and cries of self-hatred along with the need for forgiveness and communion in the healing Turn out the Lights and creates something as self-critical as it is compassionate; as fatalistic as it is healing. It’s the act of seeking your self-worth, admitting your demons, yearning to be more than the sum of your parts, and the ability to reckon with your inability to avoid well laid traps of our addictions. Little Oblivions isn’t just approaching the subject of fleeting bliss and self-medicating, of self-destruction as a form of therapeutic dissociation, but also of the clean cut euphoria that is to find self-resolution and in taking the first step towards betterment.
There’s a reason why religion, addiction, and relationships are all so heavily intertwined in her lyrics. All grant us moments of relief, satisfaction, and escape and all leave us vulnerable and laid bare. It is that intersection of themes that makes Baker not only a tremendous musician, but an engaging storyteller of the highest caliber. There are no grand assumptions nor are there clear denouncements, aside from her own self-punishing lyrics. Instead there’s musings on mercy, revelatory self-awareness and dreadful curiosity over the worth of humanity.
A towering achievement, Little Oblivions is devastatingly beautiful, a painful at times but still engrossing listen that doesn’t let the singer or her listeners off easily, instead pulling us along with her in her wake. It settles somewhere deep in our chest and cries out to all those who are looking for forward motion and improvement—who are celebrating getting our heads above the water. It’s stirring and immaculately produced and the culmination of a career, defying expectations while staying true to her ability to divulge deeply personal truths that land with shocking universality. As her greatest work so far, perhaps the biggest compliment to be given is that even still, her promise shines so brightly that I’ve no doubt she’ll continue to outdo herself—setting her own bar.