With “Little Oblivions,” Julien Baker gifts 42 minutes of ambrosial reality to a world that desperately needs it. This – her third album – is far from an anesthetic, but it seems a different sort of unbandaged pain from her previous work.
If you’re not familiar with the Tennessee native’s brand of deeply introspective, soul-excavating songwriting, you should be. Her music, in a word, is tough.
Baker often wrestles with faith in the face of oneself, when that self is not only self-destructive – “Beat myself until I’m bloody / and I’ll give you a ringside seat,” she sings – but also hurts everything around it: “If I didn’t have a mean bone in my body, I’d find some other way to cause you pain.”
In the past, though, that self-examination hasn’t been padded by very much sound. Her 2015 debut “Sprained Ankle,” in particular, is like sitting in an empty clearing with nothing between you and Baker’s words.
2017’s “Turn Out the Lights” featured a fuller sound but was still very trim. Both were the testimonies of someone grasping at hope with such a deep determination in spite of being dredged through painful depths.
“Little Oblivions” crosses the boundary into full, bursting sound. Listeners are faced with all kinds of new instruments, including mandolin, banjo and – most importantly – synths. Gone are the days of Baker standing on stage, almost wholly alone, before an audience in tremoring suspense.
There will probably be a band from here on in. The result is something that possesses Baker’s critical emotional writing and a more broadly listenable palette. To put that another way, Baker’s music has more tonal variety now.
One example of this is lead single “Faith Healer.” Baker sings, “Ooh, I miss it high, how it dulled the terror and the beauty / And now I see everything in startling intensity.”
It’s not happy, but it is a nuanced examination of addiction and sobriety supported by a similarly nuanced combination of synths and slick guitar; I can listen to it at almost any moment.
Album opener “Hardline,” too, feels more like a high-hat-driven rock song than anything else. It builds toward an emotional climax both lyrical (” … it isn’t black and white / What if it’s all black, baby? / All the time”) and musical.
But do not be mistaken; this newfound musical angle doesn’t detract in the slightest from Baker’s writing. Addiction, relapse, faith and self-conception, are all to be found here in glimmering clarity along with concerns about adulthood and relationships.
And the composition is a perfect complement to that. “Crying Wolf” startles with its soft piano opening and leads into Baker’s divine and distant guitar. The track brims with emotion, denying the angered boil-over one might have expected. Instead, it departs, leaving in its wake the sensation of being left open, exposed.
“Song in E” accounts the counterintuitive difficulty in being the recipient of another’s mercy in the expectation of their hatred. Where hate and anger toward her might have given Baker an externality to respond to with equal hatred, mercy leaves her only herself to hate: “I wish that I drank because of you / And not only because of me.”
Album closer “Ziptie” dials back the tempo with a lightly shuffling drum track and metronome. It slings itself between moments of white space, preparing us for the huge void that is to be the end of this album. At times, Baker’s voice is almost fraying, shaky, like when she sings, “I was disappointed to find out how much everybody looks like me.”
Between Baker’s keen use of a large musical palette and her typically flooring lyrics, “Little Oblivions” is an incredible accomplishment. Though it occupies something of a different space from her previous work, it has everything of Baker’s soul in it and little to stand between that and the listener.
In 2017, Baker sang “When I turn out the lights, oh / There’s no one left / Between myself and me.” “Little Oblivions” collapses the distance between the listener and themselves, reducing it almost to nothing, leaving listeners pressed up against ourselves.
It seems as though Baker has given us a piece of art that, in some peculiar, wonderful and at times scary manner, brings us closer to ourselves even than when the lights are out and we are lying awake in bed – totally alone.
Julien A. Luebbers can be reached at email@example.com.
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