Release Date: Feb 26, 2021
Record label: Matador
"I'm telling my own fortune, something I cannot escape," offers Julien Baker on 'Hardline', the opening track on her expansive third studio album; a step away from the acoustic led singer-songwriter affair of her first two outings. Her words perfectly establish what's to follow across the record's twelve tracks, songs that continue to make often self-deprecating observations about herself and others that feel as vital as they are inescapable. Julien has forged a space from laying her demons bare and the hunt for some semblance of solace, and 'Little Oblivions' is no different.
While I love Julien Baker's music, I oftentimes have to be in a certain mood to listen to it. Her particular style of brutally honest singer/songwriter music is obviously ill-suited for a party or a breezy car ride, but it's also sometimes too much, to me, for even a casual listen. Usually, Baker's music soundtracks the sort of disconsolate, searching moments that she herself explored on 2017's Turn Out the Lights and 2015's Sprained Ankle.
"You say it isn't cut and dry, oh it's not all black and white," Julien Baker sings at the outset of 'Little Oblivions'. "What if it's all black, baby, all the time?" Since 2015's 'Sprained Ankle', appropriately, the Tennessee songwriter has built a catalogue of songs that explore the range of coloured bruises, grey zones, and emotional fractures sustained across a lifetime, observed up close in painful detail. On her third album, the view has swung from microcosm to breathtaking panorama.
Here's the type of record that can propel an artist from indie acclaim to widespread recognition. After two critically lauded albums of raw, powerful alt-folk -- as well as a rapturously received collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus as boygenius -- Memphis-based singer-songwriter Julien Baker has burst forth with a third effort that's so fully formed and viscerally human, it might as well have its own pulse. Known for making music out of little more than a strong, crackling voice, the reverberations of an electric guitar and the most intimate moments of confession and self-reflection, Baker has now embraced a full-band sound that fills in the spaces where previously there were only breaths, cracks, creaks and palpable tension.
"I'm tired of washing my hands, god I wanna go home" When Julien Baker wrote those words in 2015, the world was less on fire. There were still problems stacked high, of course, but we weren't staring daily into an abyss of isolation and hand-washing and surface-scrubbing just to stay alive. Julien Baker wrote a line about her own life - likely, the OCD she suffers from, which she's recently spoken about as being linked to her experiences growing up queer in the religious South - and five years later the words rang out across our scared new world, taking on crushing new meaning.
Little Oblivions is Julien Baker's third studio album, and it's far and away her most accessible and most universal to date. For one thing, there are drums, and for another, the songs are just so much more distinct. Interestingly, this also marks her third successive self-produced album, highlighting that the artistic developments and their successes are ultimately her own reward for the experimentation on display.
Julien Baker turns being way too hard on yourself into its own genre. The Tennessee singer-songwriter and producer's debut album, 2015's Sprained Ankle, delivered gut-wrenching tales of injury and substance abuse while setting Baker's prayerful voice over little more than twinkling acoustic guitar and a smattering of piano, with a title track that echoed Baker's real-life experience of running herself ragged. Her follow-up (and Matador debut), 2017's Turn Out the Lights, added woodwinds, strings, and other flourishes, but at its emotional core was a lone character convincing herself just "not to miss any more appointments." With Baker's third album, Little Oblivions, her self-lacerating storytelling gets a more expansive canvas.
After 2017's spare, confessional Turn Out the Lights, Little Oblivions sounds like the sprawling, open-hearted statement we'd eventually get from Julien Baker. That's not to say that the Nashville singer-songwriter isn't confronting the personal struggles that made her predecessor so hard yet alluring to hear. The imagery that Baker presents here is just as devastating if not more so—whether she's on the brink of physical collapse, beating herself up for her choices, or condemning religion.
The Lowdown: Julien Baker has always performed raw, devastating rock music to confront her inner demons of mental illness, addiction, and insecurity, but the final track on her sophomore record, 2017's Turn Out the Lights, implied a slight trajectory upwards. After spending the spacious record outlining her faults and anxieties, pleading with God to rewire her brain, she began to accept her circumstances on the final track, "Claws in Your Back". "I think I can love the sickness you made/ 'Cause I take it all back, I changed my mind/ I wanted to stay," she sang, holding out that last word until it found its home inside of her.