Album Review: Julien Baker - Little Oblivions
I had never thought about it, really, until I sat down with Little Oblivions, the third full-length from singer and songwriter Julien Baker, but what I realize is that throughout her canonical output of songs—her three albums, the handful of one-off singles she’s issued, and even the boygenius song that she was more or less the ‘head writer’ on1, I realize that since the beginning, Baker has used vivid depictions of violent imagery, or violent phrasing.
On her skeletally arranged debut, Sprained Ankle, she juxtaposes the violence with the strong spiritual allusions that still permeate her work today. “I know I saw your hand when I went out and wrapped my car around the streetlamp” she admits on the album’s opening track, “Blacktop”; on “Something,” the silence swallows her and the ring in her ear “tastes like blood.”
“My heart is gonna eat itself,” she confesses slowly on the audacious opening line to the slow burning “Televangelist,” from her second full-length, 2017’s Turn Out The Lights; then later on that same album, on “Even”—“Did you think I forgot the fireworks, the black eye? Trading blows on the fourth of July.”
I would argue the violent imagery, or use of violent expressions, becomes more apparent, or at the very least, more challenging to not acknowledge in some way, in the two singles Baker released in 2019—the devastating “Red Door” opens with an ambiguous, poetic scene: “Gonna break your hand/tell me not to fight anymore…So knock me out again—count backwards from ten as I relay the colors as they appear to me from the bottom of a cement floor.”
In the second verse, perhaps the most graphic—“Bend my knees and paint the concrete the color of my bloody knuckles pulling splinters from the chapel door.”
And on “Tokyo,” the other single Baker issued in 2019—brooding and glitchy, and perhaps the most telling of the kind of sound she was working towards, she bends the violence into a personal reflective metaphor: “God it’s a mess; a seven-car pile up of every disastrous thing that I’ve been.”
I had never thought about it, really, until I sat down with Little Oblivions, but her choice in violent imagery really does register with the listener—the bloody concrete, balled up fists and punches landing, horrific car accidents (literal or figurative)—they linger with you well after you have finished listening.
“Would you hit me this hard if I were a boy?,” Baker asks very bluntly in the second verse of “Hardline,” the explosive, dizzying opening track on Little Oblivions—a densely layered, complicated album that finds Baker writing about violence, yes, (“Ringside” opens with the lyric “Beat myself until I’m bloody and I’ll give you a ringside seat”) but it’s an album that finds her ruminating on her struggles with both her sobriety and her spiritual identity, as well as reckoning as best she can with herself, and attempting, if possible, to not so much “come to terms” with any of this, but to find any type of resolve in the end.
It is also a heart wrenching, gorgeous statement, underscored by the surprising full band instrumentation Baker had only been experimenting with on songs like “Red Door” and “Tokyo.” The complex arranging might, upon first listen, and for example in the album’s first single, “Faith Healer,” released in October of last year, the arranging might be “a lot.” Like, a lot to handle, sonically, and a lot to process if you had always hoped Baker wouldn’t outgrow the sound she worked within on her first two outings. Little Oblivions isn’t about “outgrowing,” but it is about growth and maturation in songwriting. Baker, already a confident and intelligent performer, is using this opportunity to take the next musically logical step—the inclusion of elements that only add to the urgency, drama, and visceral emotion found in her lyrics.
Little Oblivions is, in short, as enormous as it is immediate as it is ambitious. The soundscape Baker has created here literally has no ceiling, and across the album’s 12 tracks, she makes the act of controlling the tension and release seem utterly effortless. It’s a surprisingly risky album—there is the possibility of not so much alienating early fans who are remiss that an artist that spent so many years without this much instrumentation has now redeveloped their sound, but of upsetting them nevertheless; it’s also a personally risky project for Baker—her songwriting has always been unabashedly honest but there is more at stake here, and for an artist that spent so many years without this much instrumentation, the redevelopment of her sound at this time means her lyricism has to rise to the emotional level of the music.
It should be unsurprising to hear that Little Oblivions rarely, if ever, falters, or buckles under the weight of its ambition and scope.
The album opens with a sharp, loud blast of an organ, ushering in the first song, the explosive “Hardline,” which really sets the tone for both the album’s dynamics, as well as Baker’s unflinchingly personal lyrics. And throughout, one thing that is very apparent this time around—and perhaps it’s because she has created a more robust musical environment—but there are a number of times where Baker has hit her stride in terms of pop songwriting. The songs, as a whole, are bigger, but the hooks are enormous, and a song like “Hardline,” or the first single, “Faith Healer,” are built such a way that they aren’t infectious like a ‘pop’ song2 is, but they do hit in just the right way so that they linger in your mind.
It is surprising, though, that a song that is as lyrically dark as, say, “Hardline” is can get stuck in your head, but it does.
There’s a beauty woven into the musical fabric throughout a bulk of Little Oblivions. Sometimes it’s a gentle, or fragile beauty that can break your heart, like specific moments in “Relative Fiction,” which is one of the album’s finest pieces; other times it isn’t a harsh, or stark beauty, but much like the way Baker finds captivating and poetic ways to work violence into her words, the instrumentation and arranging can have a sharp edge to it, which gives a song the final push it needs to take it to the heights it is destined to soar to.
Musically, “Hardline” is not, like, the thesis statement for Little Oblivions, but it is among the most cathartic—a bold thing to do right from the beginning of the record—and it’s also one of the most cacophonous.
Maybe it isn’t one of the most surprising things about the album, but it is one of the most fascinating for a listener such as myself is the painstaking and meticulous production detail you can hear in every song. Self-produced in Baker’s hometown of Memphis, TN, she is credited in the liner notes as the sole “writer and performer” on the record, and it’s impressive to think about the amount of time spent in the studio, working with an engineer, and creating these songs and working to get the level of density just right. From beginning to end, it’s a collection of songs that sonically, you can get absolutely lost in with just how many layers Baker has built within each of them.
Along with that painstaking and meticulous attention to making this record sound the way it does—it seriously sounds like a million bucks with just how enormous it is—the more you listen to Little Oblivions, the more you see how much effort went into creating a cohesive sound. The songs don’t fall into a trap of sounding “the same” as the album progresses, but there are similarities or elements that seem familiar as each new piece arrives.
It may seem like a small detail, but one of the sonic elements that struck me right away was how on a number of tunes, Baker creates a contrast between skittering or muddied sounding drum samples or programming, allowing that to skitter underneath the other layers, before bringing in a live drum kit at just the right time. I noticed it first when “Faith Healer” was released at the time of the album’s announcement, but it’s a technique she employs with continued success again on “Favor,” “Bloodshot,” and perhaps one of the album’s flat out devastating songs, “Relative Fiction.”
Little Obvious is not without its pensive, more reflective moments, or even moments like that worked into something otherwise gigantic in sound, but the overall aesthetic of the record is bombast, catharsis, and explosive, but Baker, even when it seems like the walls of the album are going to crumble down and it’s just too much, never loses control of it and never forgets about the accessibility of the material, both musically and lyrically.
Lyrically, it’s dark, yes, but it’s a darkness that we can all find a way into and identify with, whether we want to or not, and musically, Baker walks the line between bombast and triumph, often alternating between the two, in the way “Faith Healer” takes off and aims beyond the rafters, or way she builds the fuzzed out opening guitar line of “Ringside” up into an absolute anthem—damn near commanding you to pump your fist in time as she belts out the line “Jesus can you help me now?!?”
The musical sense of catharsis that Baker introduced at the start of the album on “Hardline” is something she returns to near the end, with the explosive, daring back to back “Repeat” and “Highlight Reel.” “Repeat” is the one moment on Little Oblivions where, near the end, it seems like she is going to lose control of the song completely in the frenetic and dizzying peak it reaches, an effect added to her vocals to chop it up into the noise and oscillation, delivering the titular phrase like a mantra before the song fades away slowly, and delicately into the ether.
She uses a similar technique on the brooding and glorious “Highlight Reel”—again, another one of many songs on Little Oblivions that is based around the slow burn and build to something incredibly vast and breathtaking as she unravels on the “highlight reel” of her biggest mistakes n life, her voice reaching other-worldly levels as it folds itself in and out of the musical fabric, singing “When it dies you can tell me how much was a lie—I guess that’s for me to decide,” as everything begins to swirl around her.
I hesitate to call Little Oblivions Baker’s “sobriety album,” because if we’re being realistic, that could be any of her full-lengths; traces of her past struggles with alcohol and substance abuse, and how that shaped her early identity, can be found in the lyrics on both Sprained Ankle and Turn Out The Lights. You could refer to Little Oblivions as Baker’s “sobriety album” because of the urgency within the songs—in 2019, Baker cancelled tours due to “medical reasons” and “unforeseen personal matters.” There was something eerie in those very loaded, ambiguous expressions, and as the album unfolds, it is revealed that those unforeseen matters were Baker’s relapse, her road to recovery, seeking understanding and forgiveness from others, and her attempts to forgive herself.
I saw Baker, and her boygenius bandmates Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus in late 2018—Baker technically closed the night, before all three women came back out and performed the boygenius EP in full—and during her set, Baker took a pause in between songs and said, “Being a performer is great because it makes you take a step back…now I can stand up here with a big smile on my face and sing about all the bad things in my life.”
It should come as no surprise to hear that Little Oblivions, even in its moments of triumphant or explosive instrumentation, is Baker’s darkest record to date, filled with terribly bleak, brutally honest imagery, and effacing self-reflection.
It’s the kind of record full of lyrics that, one they register, have you scrambling to Google “Can you die from having too many feelings?”
Much like the cathartic, cacophonous arranging of “Hardline,” Baker uses the song’s lyrics to really set the tone for the direction the rest of the record is going to take. “Blacked out on a weekday—still something I’m trying to avoid,” she deadpans in the song’s opening line. She follows that up with one of the most audacious, and emotionally charged lines on the record—the kind of self-deprecating reflection that you want to use as the subject line in an email to a close friend, or use as the “about me” on your Facebook page: “Start asking for forgiveness in advance for all the future things I will destroy. That way I can ruin everything—when I do, you don’t get to act surprised.”
Not everything is as direct, or as theatrical in its sentiments. What I realized about “Faith Healer,” within the context of the album, and in sitting down with the small amount of lyrics that make up the song, is that in it, and in other places throughout Little Oblivions, Baker creates a non-linear narrative through her recent personal struggles, perpetually shifting tenses to different moments and different interactions. A bulk of it, yes, is the after the fact reflection, but there are places where she, for lack of a better descriptor, writes from the early stages of her relapse, and interjects the cries for help. “The smoke alarm’s been going off for weeks,” she sings over the shuffle of “Faith Healer.” “No one showed up and half the time, it isn’t what you think.”
On the indie rock groove ladened “Heatwave,” as she recalls having a panic attack while stuck in traffic, Baker delivers this haunting passage, which doesn’t really get lost within the music, but the knack for infectious songwriting partially masks the seriousness—“I was on a long spiral down before I make it to the ground. I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck and kick the chair out.”
Baker revisits that stark, thinly veiled suicidal ideation on the harrowing “Crying Wolf.” “It’s the first day of the new year, all the visitors went home,” she sings over a warm, somber electric piano. “Couldn’t stand the thought of having everything to los so I tied a knot.”
“I’m not crying wolf,” she continues in the song’s refrain. “I’m out here looking for them.”
Part of Baker’s slow journey to recovery, as documented on Little Oblivions, is seeking forgiveness from others for the pain she has caused—an act she documents in “Favor,” a song that finds her reuniting with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, who provide additional vocals to the track. “I told you the only kin I knew was who I could see from the gurney,” she declares in the song’s first verse. It also includes what is among the album’s most memorable, and most harrowing and reflective lyrics—“How long do I have until I’ve spent up everyone’s goodwill?”
Little Oblivions is an album full of surprises—both within its sound as well as in the way Baker writes her narratives, making them extremely personal, but also accessible enough, and poetic enough, that you can see flashes of yourself in them as well; that element can, of course, make the album personally difficult to listen to at times.
Perhaps the most surprising thing of all, in the end, is the song “Relative Fiction,” which arrives within the album’s first half.
Of course there is a somber tone that has been cast across Little Oblivions because of its subject matter, but Baker plays against it a number of times in the way the songs are structured. Here, she plays into it, crafting a moody swirl of guitar and piano that ripples around her until the song slowly opens up as it progresses, its trudge-like drum programming giving way to a crisp, precise sounding kit that keeps time when its strength begins to grow.
It’s also here, on “Relative Fiction,” where Baker’s songwriting is perhaps at its finest in terms of combining all the elements that have made her such an important voice in music. The personal reflections are unwavering in their honesty, no matter how difficult is it to hear, but there’s also a gorgeous scene that she paints within the song’s opening verse by using vivid, but fragmented imagery.
“Midnight, you could see me dangling,” she begins. “Glow like a cherry falling/Now it's a downpour. You could see me racing the rain to the ground floor—you’re the only thing I'll wait around for.”
There’s something both terribly innocent but also desperate in the way she continues her depiction—“Maybe when you get off of work, you should meet me. We could go barreling down the main street. You could try watching while I run through the high-beams.”
One of the large lyrical themes that is found in an number of places on Little Oblivions is, yes, Baker’s need to try and repair what she’s damaged during her dark period, but also the instinct to push people away out of the fear that she might hurt them again—or not even really the fear, but the assurance, based on her past, that she will. “I don’t need a savior, I need you to take me home,” she confesses near the end of “Relative Fiction.” “I don’t need your help. I need you to leave me alone.”
I write a lot about that when music impacts me personally, it can make me feel “seen” or “attacked.” And the thing that I am still grappling with on Little Oblivions is that while I can see difficult reflections of myself on a lot of these songs, or specific moments within songs, I am never to the point where I would say I feel seen or attacked. I just feel. I feel the songs and I feel myself within the songs, and I sit with them, despite how uncomfortable3 it might be.
“If I didn’t have a mean bone in my body, I’d find some other way to cause you pain,” she sings in a near whisper in the song’s bridge. “I won’t bother telling you I’m sorry for something that I’m gonna do again.”
Julien Baker is much more complicated than the “queer sober singer” she is quickly described as, and Little Oblivions, if there was any doubt before now, cements that fact. She’s created a vast artistic statement that is both astoundingly personal while remaining accessible and fascinating to hear. It’s an album that is full of emotional turmoil that as hard as it might be to sit through at times, is completely worth immersing yourself in and, perhaps, getting something out of by the time it’s concluded.
And within her personal complexities, the through line on the album, or at least one of the clearest conceits, is not only the difficulties in asking forgiveness from others, or being able to find it within to forgive yourself for any disappointments, but it’s trying to find the balance between hope and despair.
All of those things culminate in the song “Bloodshot,” where she honestly laments, “Isn’t like I do this on purpose. I just forget the second I’ve learned it. Looking for little oblivious—I’d do anything knowing you would forgive me. There’s no glory in love, only the gore of our hearts. So let it come for my throat, take me and tear me apart.”
She is also able to separate those feelings—the despair, or at least the bleakness that I completely understood once the lyric hit me as it lingers at the end of “Hardline”—“It isn’t black and white. What if it’s all black, baby—all the time?”
That idea is starkly juxtaposed with an admittance from “Relative Fiction,” that must be difficult to arrive at, and one that I can maybe, one day, arrive at for myself—“Now I can finally okay and not the way I thought I should.”
1- I say ‘head writer’ with big air quote energy simply because of the mythology around the way the boygenius EP was written and recorded—each member was to bring one mostly completed song to the session, and then the trio of Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker wrote the three additional songs together in the studio. It’s very clear from the tone of the song, a well as the fact that Baker sings lead on it, that “Stay Down” was her mostly completed contribution.
2- There is a difference, while tough to explain at times, between contemporary popular music, and “pop music.” But there is a place where elements from both camps overlap slightly.
3- This is a shout out to my therapist who has recently been telling me to acknowledge and give space to things when they are “uncomfortable.”