Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
Released February 26th, 2021 on Matador Records
Produced by Julien Baker
Stoicism in the face of upheaval has been the name of the game for Julien Baker since the beginning of the Trump era. After hitting the Billboard 200 in 2017 with Turn Out The Lights, the indie-folk singer-songwriter linked up with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus to form the supergroup Boygenius, whose resultant self-titled 2018 EP managed to chart even higher. Then she went back to school. As someone who’s constantly in motion, it is thus unsurprising that she took the opportunity after all of this to fiddle with her sound. She hasn’t changed it; these are still ruminations on the nature of faith, the insidious struggle that is learning to overcome addiction, the vicious cycle of shame and self-loathing, and the redemptive abilities of hope. What she has done instead is expand it. Lyrically, Julien Baker is anxiety-ridden and horribly self-conscious; musically, she is more confident and ambitious than ever.
From the beginning of “Hardline” it’s clear that this is a much more ambitious Julien Baker album. Her first two albums were intimate, carried largely by Baker and her acoustic guitar. Little Oblivions is the sound of Baker going for an arena-wide sound, with a full band carrying each track. “Full band” is kind of a misnomer; it’s Baker playing most of the instruments, a la Siamese Dream. It elevates these songs to a level where diversity in genre is recognizable; there are parts of dream pop, shoegaze, emo, and tinges of country here and there. Lyrically, however, they are very much Julien Baker songs, in that she spends much of the time beating herself up over failures both real and perceived, channeling her anxiety and struggling with fighting the addiction she spent her early teen years mired in. Much of the time she wonders if she’s beyond redemption; witness the third verse on “Song In E”, where she says “Oh, I wish you’d come over / Not to stay, just to tell me that I / Was your biggest mistake to my face / And then leave me alone / In an еmpty apartment, face down in the carpеt / I wish you’d hurt me / It’s the mercy I can’t take.” On “Ringside” she literally beats herself up; people with bad anxiety may recognize the “slap yourself in the face mid-hysterics” move – it’s one Baker has apparently done onstage. “Heatwave” flirts with suicidal imagery, with Orion’s Belt as the noose; it also manages to combine Biblical images of submission to suffering that then questions why we accept and submit to it instead of trying to actively help and heal the suffering of others. The final song, “Ziptie”, wonders when the quest to redeem people will just be called off; after watching people brutalized in the streets for standing up for themselves, will God just wash his hands and say “Fuck it”? These are the heady thoughts Baker frames with her new arena prowess, and the new sounds underline and accentuate the dark thoughts you’ll be awake until 3 AM mulling over.