Julien Baker has taken things up a level both sonically and emotionally on her third album, Little Oblivions. While the record has seen her recruit a band and add an extra level of profoundness to her sound, it’s also one of her most personal releases. There’s a sense of grandeur that comes from the evolution of her sound, which neatly juxtaposes with the intimate lyrics that litter the LP. They see her honestly wrestle with her demons and let herself be seen emotionally exposed.
There’s an aptness to the timing of the release of the record too. Almost a year into living in the lonely lockdown dystopia, a place where it’s hard to decipher where the real world ends and starts, Baker has managed to encompass that disorientated feeling that comes from feeling at sea across Little Oblivions, which is an all-too-familiar feeling. There’s rectitude at the heart of everything that Baker does. Even though she’s made her sound more expansive than ever before, that takes nothing away from her lyricism that continues to shine through on Little Oblivions, just like on her first two records.
This new and enhanced sound has also made Julien Baker force herself to be more commanding and no longer be that quiet girl with an acoustic guitar in the corner of the room. The full-band approach adds a forceful layer to her sound, which allows Baker to express herself in ways that she simply couldn’t when it was a one-woman operation.
Album opener, ‘Hardline’, immediately starts proceedings dramatically and informs listeners that this is Julien Baker like you’ve never heard her before. Her powerful, passionate and fiery delivery is enthralling. Not only does Baker’s vocal paint a vivid picture of her struggle, but the addition of the thumping drums and emphatic organs give the song a dreaded sense of jeopardy that crushes with every crescendo. The track is captivating from the first note until the last and makes the listener root for the protagonist fighting a battle that seems to have no end-in-sight.
Baker opens the track with the devastating lines, “Blacked out on a weekday, Still, something that I’m trying to avoid, Start asking for forgiveness in advance, For all the future things I will destroy, That way I can ruin everything,” she sings.
Throughout her career, Baker has always painted an honest picture of herself and been open about being sober since her late teens, a decision which was made after falling into the grips of alcohol and prescriptive drugs. After years of sobriety, she relapsed in 2019. For a year, she fell off a cliff mentally, with Little Oblivions being the sound of Baker patching herself back together piece-by-piece, slowly building a ladder to escape the darkness of her lowest ebb.
On Little Oblivions, the everyday battle she faces in staying sober shine through as she weighs up her life-options on ‘Relative Fiction’, musing: “When I could spend the weekend out on a bender, Do I get callous or do I stay tender, Which of these is worse, and which is better?, Dying to myself virtually, a massacre.”
Later on in the album, she returns to the theme on ‘Song E’, which opens with Baker pondering: “I wish that I drank because of you and not only because of me, Then I could blame something painful enough not to make me look any more weak.”
Another theme that ties in with the record is Baker’s battle with loving others and herself, ‘Ringside’ sees her continue to take lumps out of herself as part of a mental bloodsport. In the opening verse, she brutally sings, “Beat myself until I’m bloody, And I’ll give you a ringside seat, You say that it’s embarrassing, I’m sorry that you had to see me like that.”
Julien Baker’s life entirely revolves around music, and it’s her sole escape from the struggles of her everyday life. The studio is the only place where she’s not scared to open up about her deepest and darkest thoughts. Little Oblivions is an emotionally crippling journey in which Baker continuously puts herself brutally down across the record and fights up against her demons. However, unlike the movies, the fight ends in a draw. Baker exists within the real world, and addiction is a constant battle that she is fighting against one day at a time. Some days are easier than others, as is reflected across Little Oblivions.
There’s a sense from the album that Baker is firmly on her journey towards contentedness, even if she’s not there yet, and there’s still plenty of road bumps preventing her from reaching her destined place of solace.
Not only is the album a lyrical tour de force that has a frank transparentness running triumphantly through it. The inclusion of a band is a masterstroke that lets Baker add a brand new kaleidoscope of colours to the album, which light-up the solemnity of her lyrics entrancingly.