Content warning: suicide reference
Little Oblivions, Julien Baker’s boldest album yet, is by no means an easy listen. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter from Tennessee writes songs that lay bare her innermost demons with startling clarity. Released Feb. 26, Baker’s latest is a gut punch that comes out swinging, once again providing some of the most cathartic indie rock in the game, as well as her most anthemic songs to date.
Sparse guitar and solitary vocals characterized the spacious backdrop of her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle; her sophomore effort Turn Out the Lights added accompanying instruments, taking the emotional crescendos higher. With Little Oblivions, bigger, full-band arrangements push Baker’s songs to their apex. But rather than drown out the sincerity of her songwriting, they amplify her pain.
This time around, Baker’s songs, often more like confessional musical diary entries, are expanded into sonic widescreen. Opener “Hardline” teases Baker’s fuller sound, as percussion and trembling organ noises remain at bay until she can’t hold them back anymore, proclaiming “I can see where this is going/ but I can’t find the brake” as the rest of the song comes crashing down like rain. On standout track “Relative Fiction,” gentle piano transforms into a massive stadium-ready chorus full of driving guitar lines boosted by heavy, pulsating drums. It’s the closest to power-pop that Baker has ever sounded, and it’s by no means a bad look. These are powerful songs with an emotional weight that further justify their more expansive reach.
The softer songs are just as affecting. The warbling keys and bright shimmers that build around “Repeat” surround Baker like a warm embrace as the world begins to blur around her. “Song in E” is the most understated moment on the album, a heartbreaking piano ballad where Baker rejects sympathy and begs for deprecation, admitting, “It’s the mercy I can’t take.” It’s more proof that Baker’s songs don’t necessarily need to rely solely on big emotional choruses to aptly convey the magnitude of her devastation.
But all the clarity and beauty of Little Oblivions’ sound doesn’t distract from the heaviness of its songs. Across the album, Baker details her struggle with relapse and the failing relationship between herself and the outside world. Trauma is seared into the backbone of every lyric, every minor chord, every breath of her voice.
Boygenius bandmates Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus provide ghostly backing harmonies and emotional support to “Favor,” where Baker circles around guilt and self-sabotage. “Crying Wolf” sounds wounded on all levels, from the wailing guitar and atmospheric keys to Baker’s brutally honest lyrics describing a hopeless cycle with substance abuse. The deceptively gentle “Heatwave” details a panic attack, where Baker spirals into the record’s darkest moment: “Before I make it to the ground/ I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck/ And kick the chair out.”
Though the subjects Baker writes about are heavy, her music is a hopeful act of soul-searching amid a hopeless state of mind. The fuzz-infused “Ringside” is at once lyrically brutal and sonically uplifting, as she hopes for salvation while acknowledging her doubt (“I know no one wins this kind of thing/ It’s just another way to kill an hour”). “Faith Healer,” the album’s biggest moment of catharsis, is a total surrender to unhealthy forms of escape. Here, her pain and desperation are channeled into a chorus with so much gravity, it’s easy to feel your own self within the final lines as she pleas, “I’ll believe you if you make me feel something.”
The centerpiece and central message of the album are found in “Bloodshot,” with lyrics from the song scribbled across the album’s cover art: “There’s no glory in love/ Only the gore of our hearts.” Across the album’s 12 tracks, Baker exudes a fearlessness in excavating her deepest pain, matched by arrangements that rise and fall to her emotional peaks and valleys. Though the weight of her songs has always been felt, Little Oblivions feels like we’re finally hearing the artist in full.
Vincent Tran covers music. Contact him at [email protected].