Album Review: Julien Baker – ‘Little Oblivions’

A fearless autobiography disguised as an album, Little Oblivions is a beacon of light that demonstrates all the pain and beauty that we experience in life. Amber Frost unravels the intimate third offering from Tennessee-born singer-songwriter, Julien Baker.

Little Oblivions is an album that explores the difficulties of being alone and longing for human connection again, as well as the desire to create a place where you can disappear from the struggles of life. There’s an overall tone of nostalgia and reminiscence as Julien Baker writes about the small and seemingly mundane things she misses. Self-produced at the peak of a world crisis, Baker shows her vulnerability and her honesty at how she has dealt with the pandemic. Art allows for people to not only express their creativity but to help heal and grow. For Baker, it has become so much more than just the music. The title of the album takes its name from an interview with Cheryl Waters of KEXP, Baker states, “ultimately, the substances we use, the escapist mentalities we have, the negative coping mechanisms-these are all ways that we create tiny, little oblivions in our head because reality is difficult and painful. It just is.”

This album is a venture into a new sound world for Baker, yet by stepping away from her more stripped-back albums, she demonstrates her versatility as a musician. Tracks such as Hardline create an atmosphere reminiscent of that of a live concert. The amalgamation of electric sounds, wailing organ, and distorted guitar effects sound like something you would hear open a show to get the crowd excited. Despite the more explosive sound, the lyrics remain consistent with the theme of substance abuse, depression, and the burden of mercy. This theme continues to Faith Healer, the first single off the album. Faith Healer is dark and heavy with both its lyrics and on a sonic level. Baker sings about vices, both in the obvious and more insidious ways that they show up in the human experience.

‘There is a maturity to her sound and a new demonstration that Baker is unafraid to reflect on her darkest demons.’

The emotively cathartic sound that is often employed by Julien doesn’t go unmissed throughout the album. As the record progresses, Relative Fiction and Crying Wolf feel more like the Baker we have gotten to know on her debut album, Sprained Ankle. Yet there is a maturity to her sound and a new demonstration that Baker is unafraid to reflect on her darkest demons. Relative Fiction analyzes this reflection and parses the difference between how we perceive ourselves to be and how we really are. Each track on the album reflects on the longing to really know oneself and what it is we love and miss whilst in circumstances such as these.

The versatile musical palette of the album is further demonstrated by the track Favor, which reintroduces the devastating vocal harmonies that created the sound of Baker’s band, boygenius. Favor features backing vocals of bandmates, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Dacus writes, “we sang on Favor in Nashville the same day we recorded vocals for Graceland too [Phoebe Bridgers] and a song of mine. That day had the same atmosphere as when we recorded the boygenius EP. Making music was just a natural result of being together, easy as can be but also rare in a way that feels irreplicable. I love the song for its stark but sensitive picture of friendship, what it looks like to recover from broken trust.”

Song in E swaps the acoustic guitar for piano as Baker sings a haunting lullaby addressing the excuses she made to turn to alcoholism. Repeat follows and again, addresses substance abuse and the relationship that Baker has with religion, this time the sound is less lullaby and more bittersweet. The two tracks to finish the album are Highlight Reel and Ziptie. Highlight Reel sounds exactly like its name, there are snippets of the sound that Baker showcases in her earlier albums infused with the new experimental concoction of drum machines and synthesizers. These all being Baker’s own ‘highlights’ throughout her musical career.

Ultimately, the album showcases the redeeming power of sad songs. To hear someone else battle with life and still create some kind of cathartic relief empowers all of us who are also struggling. The album provides comfort as Baker takes us on her own journey of self-destruction. Baker demonstrates that, despite life being thrown at us far too turbulently at times, there can be moments of beautiful chaos and quiet stillness, that we are still united and remain strong through it all.

Written by: Amber Frost

Edited by: Dominic Allum

Featured image courtesy of Matador Records via Facebook.