Confessions without Mercy: Julien Baker Little Oblivions Review

Julien Baker isn’t one to be afraid of her own shadow. After nearly a four year hiatus, her newest album Little Oblivions released February 26 2021 stares right into the darkest parts of herself, each lyric revealing a self-inflicted wound. Baker’s previous albums, Sprained Ankle (2015) and Turn Out the Lights (2017) have mostly layered woodwinds, strings, and vocals on top of her guitar and loop pedal. But this self-produced and self-proclaimed “post rock” album is a new step for the Tennessee singer-songwriter.

While Little Oblivions’ full-band orchestration is a deviation from her bare-bones acoustic style, Baker reminds us that life is nowhere close to linear. Her intricate lyrics have always been cathartic—she’s never exactly shied away from her life or emotions—but emerging from a year spent composing in isolation and relapsing after six years of sobriety, this is different. What we hear now is an artist grappling with what to do with herself, each verse pressing firmly on a bruise that’s far from healed.

A strange two-steps-forward, one-step-back narrative surfaces in Little Oblivions. It takes a couple of listens. It’s like absentmindedly turning over a callous rock between the palms— the edges are smoothed over time, and a naked exterior is what’s left. Baker certainly has a new “edge” any veteran listener would notice as she opens the album with “Hardline.” Right away we are introduced to the breadth of what post-rock means to Baker and the range she covers as the lone musician: layers of conversational guitar lines, bass, synthesizers, and most notably, a rampant rhythm section on drum-set.Yet, we’re deceived. The sound is so new that the lyrics appear surreptitiously: “Blacked out on a weekday / Is there something that I’m trying to avoid?” The song ends before we realize what’s hit us: “What if it’s all black, baby? All the time?”

The new album feels raw for Baker. As she told NPR, writing at times felt “humiliating,” “painful,” “embarrassing,” and a return to an abyss she spent so long climbing out of. While creating the album in the isolation of 2020 and picking up the pieces from a relapse in 2019, she’s considered the “what if’s?” of Little Oblivions from all angles. 

Baker felt tangled about whether or not to reveal the bleakest parts of herself. Would her failures be seen as mistakenly sensational, triggering, or lifting a veil she had bluffed for her audience? “I wanted to admit my failures to be better understood as a complex person that I hadn’t previously allowed myself to be,” she told NPR. Leaving “as much of herself” inside the music as feels right, Baker believes the album has been healing. Yet that self is threadbare, not seeking a holy redemption, or even forgiveness: “It’s the mercy I can’t take.”

Raised in the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, Baker grew up in a devoutly religious family. It’s common for queer children to reckon with Catholic guilt by renouncing religion as adults, yet Baker is open about her continued faith while questioning it as well. She explained to Apple Music that her obsession with discovering God’s truth is only to assuage the same pain that drugs or alcohol would. Reconciling the two in “Faith Healer,” every verse is laden with dilemmas so complex that the song warrants a few repeats to understand its gravity: “I’ll believe you if you make me feel something.”

Each song reads like a book. She grapples with suicide in “Heatwave,” a song that’s nostalgic of early 2010’s indie rock group Modern Baseball. In her poetic orchestration, the voice takes a rhythmic lead with drums wandering behind. The electric synth weeps as itching guitar strums cascade into a flood of emotion that falls just as quickly as it rose. She contrasts these swelling parts of the album with a stripped-down style that long-time Baker fans will remember. “Song in E” features a touching piano ballad while “Favor” layers the sonorous voices of friends and fellow indie bandmates Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus of the supergroup Boygenius

The orchestration develops in nuanced ways, combining instruments like banjo and mandolin and layering refined piano and vocal tracks. In “Bloodshot,” Baker enters with cascading electric guitar lines that ripple like water. The drums and piano establish an persistent pulse that’s reminiscent of a tattered journey with dragging, but determined, feet. The post-rock musician also experiments with the balance  between instruments and her own voice, emphasizing her dramatic lyricism by moving one or the other to the fore. Fading out of the title song, her haunting chorale lingers over the ending verses, the same ones scribbled on the album’s cover: “There’s no glory in love / only the gore of our hearts.”

Baker reflected in an interview with Stereogum how bouncing ideas off of other musicians on the road inspired a different type of content than what is found in Little Oblivions. While she enjoyed collaborating with other artists, performing live was painful because she constantly put her trauma on display as she reveals in “Ringside.” Writing in isolation finally made her “feel a deep responsibility to craft lyrics about the dark things [she] was experiencing in [her] life,” and Baker took such responsibility — for herself— to heart. 

As we peer into Baker’s future, we find that she’s already beat us to it. As she foreshadows in “Repeat,” “All my greatest fears turn out to be the gift of prophecy / All my nightmares coming true.” Yet, for as much as anxiety may cast a web of doubt, her hyper-specific lyrics might just resonate with a wide range of her audience. Who hasn’t wrestled with their own feelings of disappointment, unworthiness, lack of progress, or abandoned hope? Perhaps Baker is reminded that all her fans have to do is listen— that’s all they’ve ever had to do.

It’s compelling that Julien Baker’s most heavily orchestrated music somehow creates the space she needs to feel the most vulnerable. This staggering album tells stories of anguish and devastation that at times may feel too much to bear, but just as Baker confronts her looming shadow, at least she has nothing to hide.

Little Oblivions is available now on streaming services and through Matador Records.

Album work:
Cover Painting: Wylee Risso
Design: Jamie-James Medina and Matt de Jong / Undercard

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