When Julien Baker toured in support of 2017’s delicately devastating Turn Out The Lights, her audiences stood suspended in time. No cheers or sing-alongs, just several hundred bodies frozen in arrest, observing the solo songwriter as she wailed tunes of broken love, tattered faith and crumbling mental health.
While much of Baker’s new LP, Little Oblivions, hits similarly soul-ravaging notes, its accompanying stage show — whenever it comes — will be forced to liven up, emboldened by the ripe drum samples and swirling synth that drive the Memphis artist’s new sound. Hell, people may even dance!
The robust arrangements, plucking from modern rock and Americana, do well to mask what is easily Baker’s most candid, heartrending lyricism yet — an unflinching gaze into the mirror, with an acknowledgment that there’s often no one more fearsome than whoever’s staring back.
With tremendous insight, the 25-year-old singer triumphantly dismembers her own flaws in romance, wellness and sobriety. Across 12 tracks, she reckons with the idea that there exists a self, within many of us, whose sole aim is to destroy us — to watch our worlds burn.
“You say it’s not so cut and dry, it isn’t black and white / What if it’s all black, baby — all the time?” Baker seethes on the daring opener “Hardline,” which begins with an alarm-like organ signaling the listener to attention. As do many songs on the excellent self-produced record, “Hardline” pulses and shuffles between the emo-folk comforts of Baker’s past work and a grander aesthetic, something resembling the trajectory of Brandi Carlile and The Killers’ most recent LP. It’s a record worthy of much larger audiences than Baker’s previous tour stops.
Elsewhere, “Heatwave” draws from the twang-and-chug folk-punk of Chuck Ragan or Brian Fallon as Baker considers the personalization of death — how for those closest it’s enough to combust a life, while for others it’s merely a rote obituary “compressed to fill a page in the Sunday paper,” she sings. The song ends with a troubling scene: “I was on a long spiral down / but before I make it to the ground / I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck and kick the chair out.”
As the album rolls on, it becomes clear that Baker does not seek sympathy, rather embracing her emotional distance and lack of control. It’s a fitting mantra for a project released during a pandemic, which has forced a whole lot of “fuck it, man” responses to our collective existential dread.
“I’m not crying wolf, I’m out here looking for them,” she broods on “Crying Wolf,” a true-to-life track about a recent relapse after years of sobriety, and a sonic cousin of the album’s louder lead single “Faith Healer,” where Baker longs for the numbing days before she got sober: “Now I see everything in startling intensity.”
Since her last record, Baker gained new notoriety as a member of boygenius, the terrific alt-folk trio rounded out by fellow song slayers Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Both Bridgers and Dacus appear on the album, singing backgrounds on the downcast “Favor,” where Baker asks: “How long do I have until / I’ve spent up everyone’s goodwill?”
As Baker has received almost uniform acclaim since her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle, it seems there’s plenty more goodwill to be had, especially as fans latch onto the new album’s expanse of beautifully tragic lines. Like this one, from the hypnotic “Bloodshot”: “There is no glory in love — only the gore of our hearts,” which also displays on the album cover. Talk about a lyric destined for tattoos and Instagram captions.
Like all Baker’s work so far, Little Oblivions is an album that rewards close listening and multiple run-throughs — afternoons lost to foot-tapping despair and, hopefully, some catharsis as the wildly talented songwriter welcomes us back to her saddest show on Earth: “Beat myself until I’m bloody, and I’ll give you a ringside seat.”