Julien Baker continues her run of emotive releases with ‘Little Oblivions’

by Sean Gallipo

Julien Baker continues her run of emotive releases with ‘Little Oblivions’

Julien Baker

Little Oblivions

Matador · February 26, 2021

Julien Baker continues her run of emotive releases with ‘Little Oblivions’

Today, boygenius, an indie collective composed of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, is one of the most recognizable bands on the scene. In October 2015, then-20-year-old Baker, a relatively unknown singer writing songs primarily in her Middle Tennessee State dorm room, commenced this new wave of indie music with the release of her debut album Sprained Ankle. The album accrued enough interest for Baker to headline her own tours, which included Bridgers and Dacus as opening acts, and the rest is history.

Sprained Ankle was followed by a sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights, in 2017, which was met with critical and commercial success. By the time the boygenius album was released the following year, the trio of female singer-songwriters had accrued a cult following, but Baker’s third album wasn’t released to the public until Feb. 26, nearly three and a half years after Turn Out the Lights.

Baker, now 25, displays her maturity on the new record more than ever, particularly instrumentally. While her first album was a bare-bones guitar-and-vocals album, her latest work boasts a full band of instrumentation, allowing her to sing over much lusher sounds than ever before. The subject matter of the album remains similar to her past work – substance abuse, self-deprecation, and relationship struggles – but Baker’s lyrics remain convincing enough to make her latest album feel like reopening an old wound rather than rehashing stale ideas.

The opening track, “Hardline,” includes one of the best instances of Baker’s emotive writing, kicking off the album with a blunt account of struggles with drugs: “Blacked out on a weekday, still something I’m trying to avoid” are the first words sung on the record. Bolstered by one of the most powerful instrumentals on the album and picking up steam towards the end of the song in classic fashion for Baker’s songs, she concludes the alcoholic opener bleakly by calling back to the opening lyrics “Say it’s not so cut and dry / oh, it isn’t black and white / what if it’s all black baby, all the time?”

The album’s lead single, “Faith Healer,” packs a lot of punch for a song with only about a dozen lines total. The title alludes not only to Baker’s experience growing up in a religious family in Tennessee, but touches on vices which provide short-term happiness and self-esteem to those in need. The song simultaneously refers to the religious figure in the song as a “snake oil dealer,” and in the subsequent line, she concedes “I’ll believe you if you make me feel something,” perhaps again noting that the drugs in her life are the only things that have revealed healing properties of any sort.

It could be argued that the album lacks the personality which made her past albums so compelling – while there are individual lines and elements of the faintly layered instrumentals to identify as excellent, Baker remains strictly adherent to a fairly formulaic singer-songwriter album. The majority of songs hover around a 3:30 runtime, typically consisting of a couple verses and occasionally a chorus or an outro. It’s difficult to pick this apart too much, since each song sounds so polished and her writing remains satisfyingly devastating, but the album as a whole lacks the DIY identity of her debut or the echoing piano-based balladry of Turn Out the Lights. The highlights of Little Oblivions are often production touches, like the swirling and upbeat outros on “Repeat” and “Highlight Reel,” or her refined vocal harmonies on the choruses of “Ziptie” and “Favor” (with credit to Bridgers and Dacus for assistance on the latter).

Long-time fans of Baker may miss the raw, minimalist approach which highlighted her songs about sorrow on her debut, but the improved production quality adds a new dimension to Baker’s music which could provide new approaches for her music going forward. If anything, her newer material contains lots of the same things which have made her entire catalogue great, but offers a more musically inviting sound to accompany her desolate lyrics. Going forward, with three albums now under her belt and a large audience willing to consume any and all new boygenius material, it remains to be seen how Baker will push herself forward musically and lyrically.