Album Review: Julien Baker - B-Sides
The first article that appears if you search for “Japanese bonus tracks on CD” is an extremely helpful, though a little subjectively written, piece from the website Loudwire, aptly titled “Why Japanese Bonus Tracks Are A Thing - Explained.”
The article explains that in Japan, the addition of bonus tracks is an incentive for the music buying public to buy new releases manufactured within the country, as opposed to importing them from the United States. “The cost to manufacture CDs in Japan is significantly higher,” the piece’s author, Chris Wheatley, explains. “Meaning that by the time they hit the shelves, a standard album might cost around 2,500 Yen, equivalent to $23.”
The article implies it would be more cost-effective for consumers within Japan to buy albums abroad—even with the international shipping costs, but that the inclusion of bonus tracks is used as an incentive for people to purchase copies of an album—often American or simply “Western” music—produced within the country.
The bonus tracks themselves are, at times, exclusives to the Japanese edition of the album on CD—compact disc sales, per Loudwire, still, surprisingly, make up for 70 percent of recording sales in Japan as of 2020—are often demo or live versions, remixes, or b-sides.
And on paper, perhaps, the idea of bonus tracks seems appealing.
There was a time during the early days of the file sharing panic when new albums, to combat illegal downloads of an album before its official release, came with bonus tracks, tucked into the track listing after the album proper had concluded. The same thing happens now, as it is able, even though the compact disc no longer has the stranglehold it once did on the way listeners consumed music—a big box store like Target, for example, even with as paltry of an “Entertainment” department as many stores have now, with a few CDs still available, often will advertise special editions of a marquee name’s new release with additional material—one or two “exclusive” tracks, usually, filling up more of the disc’s 80 minutes of storage.
And on paper, perhaps, the idea of bonus tracks seems appealing, because maybe you want the album to continue—we, as listeners, often want more from an artist even after they have already given so much. It sounds appealing, and this is, perhaps, a generalization, but my experience with bonus tracks tacked onto the end of an album is that they are often of diminishing returns.
And some listeners are probably not as concerned, if they are even worried at all, with the idea of the insular world an album creates—however, I am a listener who is extremely worried about that world. Perhaps more concerned than I should be.
Because even with a well-intentioned “bonus track”—e.g., “Walk Off,” which was included on the version of The National’s High Violet if you purchased it from iTunes, is not the album’s intended, or proper, closing track—and tacked on at the end, removes you from the world of the album that had been so meticulously crafted.
In the autumn of 2017, singer and songwriter Julien Baker released her second full-length album, and first for Matador Records, Turn Out The Lights. Not exactly a concept album, it is a collection of songs that the sequencing of was very obviously labored over—with the very dramatic “Claws in Your Back” intentionally placed at the conclusion of the record.
And because, as a listener, I am almost unable to remove myself, and my listening experience with an album, from the world, that the album creates from the moment it begins until the moment it ends, I am struggling to imagine scenarios where other listeners are not bothered by the highly jarring contrast between a song constructed around smoldering, harrowing theatricality, and then the bonus tracks—a demo recording of Baker’s one-off single from 2019, “Red Door,” and “Funeral Pyre,” which was released at the start of 2017 alongside the announcement that she had signed to Matador.
Even as compelling, or in the case of “Red Door,” as powerful as they might be, they are an epilogue to a story that was not in need of one.
The same argument could be made for Little Oblivions—Baker’s third full-length, released in early 2021, and first time out working within additional, and often bombastic instrumentation and arranging. The album, often a collision of the terrifying and the beautiful, resulting in a much-needed catharsis, concludes with the restrained, woozy “Ziptie.”
“Ziptie” is kind of a “come down,” if you will, from the explosive, visceral song arriving before it, “Highlight Reel,” and while “Ziptie” was not my favorite song on the album, and, really, it is not nearly as emotionally stirring of a closing track in comparison to how Baker ended Turn Out The Lights, it does bring the album to its intended and natural conclusion—however on the Japanese CD edition of Little Oblivious, tucked at the end as the thirteenth track, is the haunting, acoustic “Guthrie.”
Baker recently explained that “Guthrie” was recorded “around the same time” as Little Oblivions, but it didn’t make the cut for that album, describing it as one she really liked in its own right. Hands down, " Guthrie " is a more impactful and just a better song than Little Oblivion’s closing track. Some things lyrically connect to the album's overarching theme—Baker’s relationship with sobriety and addiction.
But musically, it is nothing like the robust, densely layered material on Little Oblivions—and I am incredibly remiss to refer to it as a harkening back to the “girl playing the acoustic guitar” sound of her debut full-length, Sprained Ankle, because it isn’t—not exactly.
And okay, yes, “Guthrie” is performed sparsely with an acoustic guitar, but the hollow, downcast tone Baker gets out of it as her fingers pull at the strings, and the way those strings resonate with a palpable melancholy, is unlike the way she was writing songs at the beginning of her career. There is a part of me that wants to say it is a song that could bridge the gap between Baker’s songwriting and playing on Sprained Ankle and Turn Out The Lights, but I don’t know if that is accurate either.
It is, simply, a fragile, devastating song and something to behold—and it is a song that now will have a slightly larger audience (an audience who did not listen to it on YouTube when Little Oblivions was initially released) through its inclusion on Baker’s digitally issued B-Sides, an EP that pulls together “Guthrie,” along with two other songs written and recorded during the sessions for Little Oblivions.
And I find that I am once again thinking about the difference between the life of an album, and how an album lives—and the notion of how, in an effort to extend or continue the life of an album, artists will often do what Baker has done here—later issuing material that was written and recorded and perhaps considered to be included within the world of the album, but for whatever reason, did not make the final cut.
I am uncertain why Baker is now opting to release her B-Sides EP. Little Oblivions was released in February of 2021, and for an album issued as the first year of the pandemic was coming to a close, it lived as well of a life as it could have under the circumstances. Met with “widespread critical acclaim” via the album’s Wikipedia entry, despite the tumultuous state of the world, Baker was able to tour in support of it, which is something many artists were and still are unable to do safely. And often, as a reflection on an album’s anniversary (e.g., Carly Rae Jepsen issuing b-side collections on the first anniversary of the album the material had initially been in consideration for inclusion on), B-Sides arrives roughly a year and a half after Little Oblivions, and the only reason I can see for revealing these songs now is as a means of promotion for Baker’s upcoming tour with Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Eaten—the latter of whom released new full-length this year.
And what I, perhaps, knew all along about Baker’s lyricism—specifically the further along you go into her career—but did not put together until I was sitting with Little Oblivions, was just how violent her lyrics can be, but also how that violence is often written about and depicted.
The violence in “Guthrie” is more subtle in comparison to the ways Baker has portrayed it in her songs from the past, but the song also, perhaps intentionally, or maybe it is merely coincidental, refers back to some of the very vivid, unsettling imagery from the single “Red Door”—“So knock me out again,” Baker asks at the end of “Red Door”’s first verse. “Count backwards from ten as I relay the colors as they appear to me from the bottom of a cement floor.”
Then later in the song’s second verse: “Bend my knees and paint the concrete the color of my bloody knuckles, pulling splinters from the chapel door.”
And it is fitting that there is a terrible and palpable desperation in “Guthrie,” given how it could have fit into the overall narrative of Little Oblivions. As Baker lets her words tumble delicately onto the deeply resonant, downcast-sounding guitar string plucks, there is a convergence of that desperation and the way she beautifully and harrowingly describes violence. “And you can believe me as long as you want,” Baker assures in the first verse to an unnamed individual. “There’s nothing inside here but blood and guts.”
The depiction is even more graphic in the second verse: “When I hit the bottom, start pulling up floorboards. Whatever I get—always need just a little bit more. So I’m catching a ride now to get on the first flight. You told me it scares you—the way I that I was tonight.”
And what is, perhaps, even more, devastating to hear in “Guthrie” than Baker’s usage of violent imagery, is how brutally self-effacing she can be when at her lowest point, which is the theme that runs throughout nearly every song on Little Oblivions.
I am remiss, simply for how it sounds, to say that Baker’s lyricism, at least during this time, is her best when she is reflecting on when she sees herself at her worst, but it is when her writing is the most resonant—walking the line that pop music so often does with me, where I simultaneously feel seen and attacked.
“I only say what I really mean when I start talking to you in my sleep,” she begins gently, almost crooning the words over the top of her guitar playing. “Oh, I can be honest when I think it’s a dream—I can make promises sober I’ll never keep.”
And it is the song’s final line that hangs like a specter long after “Guthrie” has come to an end: “Wanted so bad to be good, but there is no such thing.”
“Guthrie” doesn’t unfold so much like a lullaby, but there is such a delicate and intimate nature to it, with Baker showing a lot of restraint in her vocal range and power in the way she sings—hushed, perhaps like a whisper, of a secret you are no longer able to keep to yourself.
B-Sides, as an EP, does not overstay its welcome—it is three songs, and a total of 11 minutes. The other two tracks written and recorded for Little Oblivions but for whatever reason were left on the cutting room floor are much more similar to the bombastic arrangements Baker began working within for that album. Musically, they are the opposite of the slow-burning, somber tone of “Guthrie.” Still, they are no less impactful in terms of Baker’s lyricism and how she exerts control over the theatrical arranging.
The violence Baker depicts in “Guthrie” carries over to the claustrophobic scene that unfolds in “Vanishing Point,” the EP’s second track.
Cars, and specifically, car accidents, are things that Baker has returned to throughout her songwriting—she describes wrapping her car around a streetlamp in Sprained Ankle’s opening song, “Blacktop,” returning to it in both “Hurt Less,” from Turn Out The Lights, and the one-off single released via Sub Pop’s exclusive singles club, “Tokyo,” where she juxtaposes the destruction of relationships around here with the graphic imagery of a car wreck.
“Vanishing Point” finds Baker behind the wheel again, opening with an extraordinarily dark first verse—“Foot on the dash with the headlights off/In the backseat, you’re swallowing chaos,” she begins. “I’m out on a drive wishing I were impaled on the pass at the vanishing point of the Tennessee Line.”
It, much like “Guthrie,” and much like a lot of the songs from Little Oblivions, doesn’t follow the very standard verse/chorus/verse structure—“Vanishing Point” only gets to a place of repetition in its lyrics as it heads toward its conclusion, which is among the most self-defeating and starkest in Baker’s canon thus far.
“Don’t feel bad,” she assures. “I’ve always been too far down to reach. And I was long gone before you got to me.”
And of the three songs Baker has included in this collection, “Vanishing Point” is the one that, at least in terms of how it is arranged, would have fit well within the confines of Little Oblivions—its brevity (all of two and a half minutes) gives the feeling, at least at first, that it is a song that could have, perhaps, been developed out a little further; and its instrumentation—warm, slightly antiquated sounding synthesizers, mournful cascading electric guitar waves, and clattering percussion—all building toward a cacophonic burst when the second verse kicks in, is very similar to a number of songs, and specific moments within songs, featured on the album, which is perhaps why it was eventually left off of the final tracklist.
And I was going to say that the EP’s closing track, “Mental Math,” in a sharp contrast, is much more hopeful or at least optimistic, when compared to the themes explored in the first two songs from this collection—but it isn’t. Not really. At least, in the instrumentation Baker chooses, it sounds a little lighter, with the way both the acoustic and electric guitar strings pluck and glisten off of one another. The rhythm of the song itself—I stop short of saying that it is “jaunty,” but it is the liveliest song included, bordering on anthemic and triumphant sounding.
But that is, simply, in sound only.
I am remiss to say “Mental Math” is the weakest of the three featured on this collection of unreleased tunes, but it is, when held up to “Guthrie” and “Vanishing Point,” it is much less emotionally impactful, even though its lyrics are inherently emotional—just not to the extreme Baker takes it to in other places.
And it does start out a little less bleak, though still self-effacing, as Baker opens with, “Read it in a book once, don’t remember where—if you’re happy in a dream it has to count for something.” But “Mental Math” then begins to take a slightly darker and very desperate turn—“Hanging on a ledge outside of your house. Trying not to freak out staring at the ground. Doing math in my head—how far is it down? Not too good to beg for you to talk me down.”
“You say you never had a good night’s sleep any of the nights you spent with me,” Baker sings with a bittersweet voice as the song continues. “I ask if it’d be better when I leave—and then regret it.”
Even if “Mental Math” is not operating on the same overall emotionally visceral level as the other two pieces selected for this short collection, it does end with another overarching theme Baker writes about through Little Oblivions, and that is her search for forgiveness: both from others, as well as forgiving herself.
“Cause I have a lot to say, and never in the right way,” she says near the song's end. “And if I could just explain myself again.”
And there are a few different reasons why an artist would opt, at any time really, to release a collection of b-sides. The extension of the life of the album is one of them, which I learned earlier this year after speaking with Tyler Dozier, who performs under the moniker Lady Dan. In commemoration of the first anniversary of her debut full-length, I am The Prophet, she issued a seven-inch single featuring two songs recorded during the sessions for her album, but that she intentionally held back, knowing that at some point, she would release them to maintain what she called “relevancy as an artist” in an industry that keeps moving, and artists are asked to keep generating material, regardless of its quality.
Releasing b-sides, regardless of if you share only a handful, or an entire album’s worth of material, later on, can often extend the life of an album, or the memory of that album, but it does not often extend, or continue, that album’s story—and I don’t think that is the point of a b-sides collection. And it is certainly not the point here.
If it doesn’t continue the story, what does it do?
In this case, and many cases, the b-sides collection provides additional context to the already completed world of an album—and it doesn’t so much give you a small glimpse into an artist’s “process” in terms of songwriting or even the creative process they use, but rather a glance at the notion of being a good self-editor, and, if you are feeling imaginative, wondering what the album could have been like if one, or even all of these, had been included in the final running.
The strength of a b-side can often vary from artist to artist—at times, it is obvious why a song was not included on the album it was initially intended to be on. In other cases, a b-side is so good that it is an actual crime that it was cut from the team at some point along the way. Julien Baker’s B-Sides falls somewhere in the middle between those two extremes. I can, subjectively at least, understand why tunes like “Mental Math” and even “Vanishing Point” were kept off of Little Oblivions—“Vanishing Point” being the much more potent of the two, but based on its length and its similarities in instrumentation, would have perhaps gotten lost in the shuffle of the more impactful and intentional tunes on the album.
I was having a conversation with my best friend the other night about the song “Guthrie”—she had not been aware that it was originally a bonus track included on the Japanese edition of Little Oblivions, and when she listened to it within the context of this collection of b-sides, she said she didn’t care for it because it lacked the dynamism of that you can regularly find Baker’s work—i.e., it never really leaves the hushed and very somber place it begins.
And that is a valid point, but perhaps that is one of the reasons why I like it so much—it just circles the same, difficult feelings—an airplane stuck in a holding pattern of despair, and in doing that, it does not so much create a sense of tension in need of being released, but through how still it is, the song pulls you into the world because you have to listen, and focus, on its intimacy.
If Little Oblivions was an urgent, desperate gasp of catharsis and pleading for forgiveness, this short companion piece is the reminder that, even if you thought you had worked through those complicated feelings, they can and often do still cast shadows for longer than you would like them to.