Julien Baker: Little Oblivions – Solid template for future work
Singer / Songwriter
Julien Baker’s third record, following 2015’s Sprained Ankle and 2017’s Turn Out the Lights, comes after she returned to university to finish her studies. Little Reflections acts as a different kind of study of self-reflection, or perhaps self-reckoning, with Baker unafraid to explore more darkly lit corners.
The album was recorded and self-produced in her hometown of Memphis, with demos that go back to 2019. Baker has expanded upon guitar and piano to fold in synthesizers, banjo, mandolin, and drums to expansive effect, coolly underpinning her intimate vocal, which shapeshifts over the course of the record.
While Little Oblivions is perhaps not as cohesive as her previous work, it does appositely mirror the messiness that living and loving can bring, and consequently brings a harder edge, an underlying sense of ambivalence – that most human of traits.
Here we get some mature reflection on vices both obvious and hidden on Faith Healer, with its delicate guitar, and then religion and regret on the trippy, hazy Ringside (“Jesus can you help me now?”), which shares some space with Ziptie – a highlight of the record, with its considered guitar, and a slipping and sliding kind of vocal that reveals an element of weariness as she sings, “when are you gonna call it off, climb down off the cross/ And change your mind?”
Faith permeates the record; religious faith, faith in love, in people. It all gets stress-tested here, from the squalling guitars on the anthemic Heatwave, which brings to mind Wye Oak, to the sombre tone of Highlight Reel and the wonky wobbliness of something like Repeat, and Song in E – an unexpected swerve, sounding like an exploded-music box-meets-private diary, with its wistful and true lyric “I wish I drank because of you and not only because of me”.
The self-reckoning can sometimes feel a little relentless, such as on album opener Hardline, but then Baker brings us the trip-hop-inflected Favor, which elevates (featuring Boygenius alumni Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus on backing vocals); the sweeping and ethereal Relative Fiction, with its stark questioning amid piano (“You ask do I get callous or do I get tender/ Which one of these is worse and which is better?); and the transporting Bloodshop with its stuttering drums.
The overall tone conveys something beyond Baker’s previous records, and sketches out an intriguing template for future work. For all of its self-examination, this is a record that celebrates the sense that everything is ephemeral, both good and bad, and all we can do is try to sift for beauty amid the shipwreck.