Label: Matador / 6131 Records 2021 Format: Vinyl LP File Under: Singer-Songwriter, Indie Rock, Lo Fi Rock
Little Oblivions is the third studio album by Julien Baker. Recorded in Memphis, TN, the record weaves together unflinching autobiography with assimilated experience and hard-won observations from the past few years, taking Baker’s capacity for storytelling to new heights. It also marks a sonic shift, with the songwriter's intimate piano and guitar arrangements newly enriched by bass, drums, keyboards, banjo, and mandolin with nearly all of the instruments performed by Baker.
Anyone who thinks 25-year-olds haven't lived enough to have something real to say would be gravely proven wrong by Julien Baker—who has so much to unpack, you might need to take a time-out between songs. Thanks to her first two albums, the Tennessee native was held up as an indie-folk ideal: Christian, queer, sober. Her third record, however, is all about questioning and wrestling with identity. "Imagine playing a game for two decades of 'get into Heaven or go to Hell' and then finding out that that game is made up…It would be reductive to call it a crisis of faith," she recently told iNews. That was made all the more intense by the fact that Baker has said she suffers from scrupulosity—a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that triggers pathological guilt about sin. It isn't enough to be good; Baker felt she had to be perfect. She explores it on the gently needling "Ringside": "Beat myself till I'm bloody ... So Jesus can you help me now?" Full-bodied and just a little cracked, "Faith Healer" is cotton-candy carousel music haunted by a carnival's underlying weirdness. "Oh I miss its high, how it dulled the terror and the beauty," Baker sings—seemingly a lament on the vice of religion as well as more earthbound "pleasures." In 2018, worn down by nonstop touring and expectation, she walked away from music and returned to college. She also relapsed, figuring if she was questioning everything, why not question sobriety, too. The mess that decision caused plays out in heartbreaking ways on songs like "Crying Wolf"; about relapsing after an AA meeting, it finds Baker slicing through the warm bath of piano, wielding her Telecaster like a serrated knife. "Song in E" is as pretty as the tune from a dancing ballerina music box. But the lyrics verge on self-flagellation: "I wish that I drink because of you, and not only because of me ... I say, "Give me no sympathy"/ It's the mercy I can't take." But, both in real life and on record, she has found tender mercies in friendship with fellow singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, her bandmates from the indie-rock supergroup boygenius. Here, the two join her on the alternately free-floating and weighty "Favor," their voices drifting in and out like shadows. Baker is, delightfully, almost impossible to categorize: suffice to say, she is the heir to PJ Harvey's muscular fragility and bloody-raw emotion. "Knocked out on a weekend/ Would you hit me this hard if I were a boy?" Baker lullabyes on "Hardline," a song she has said is about queer violence and feeling forced to act tough to make up for her small stature, and just for being a girl. It's ugly stuff, yet gorgeous, and destined to help people working their way through it, too. This is not bedroom pop, but the sound and roiling soul of someone out there living in the world.