Review: Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
National Music Reviews
Julien Baker = Adrianne Lenker + Wolf Alice
I have loved Julien Baker’s music since her debut album, Sprained Ankle, from 2015. There is something empowering that comes from the vulnerability she exhibited on that record, something that set the bar quite high for any subsequent releases. Baker has yet to disappoint. Her sophomore effort, 2017’s Turn Out the Lights, was every bit as thoughtful and resonating—sounding deeper in tone and musical array. I was also very much smitten with boygenius, 2018’s supergroup and self-titled album with Lucy Dacus and the always brilliant Phoebe Bridgers. Julien Baker can do no wrong, right?
I have been waiting for Baker’s latest album for a while. I read a little here and there about the album’s sound and was intrigued. I had truly come to love the raw, stripped-down aesthetic of Baker’s style and was slightly wary when I learned there were more instruments than just a guitar and piano.
Admittedly, I was a bit thrown off by Little Oblivions at first. Sonically, it didn’t give me distinct Julien Baker vibes. My first pass through was reminiscent of the first time I heard The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron & Wine. It was such a different sound than anything Sam Beam had recorded prior, and I pouted for a while before remembering that both Bob Dylan and The Beatles had gone out on a limb by enhancing their sound and adding new layers to the legacies they were shaping at the pinnacle of their early popularity. I also recognized that the music wasn’t made for my approval, but as a form of expression by an artist. Rightfully so, I gave Iron & Wine another shot and did the same with Julien Baker.
Some things that have not changed are Baker’s ability to spin a tale in one’s mind with lyrics that are relevant, relatable and composed of sharp perceptions that cut deep, as well as the power of her pipes when she bares it all. In the middle of the new album’s last track, “Ziptie,” she sings, “Catch me on the enemy line / Hawking all the gold in my teeth / I was disappointed to find out how much everybody looks like me.” Those words could mean a lot of things, but they strike me as pertinent to the turmoil our society seems to be mired in, full of preconceived ideas and pain. Always astute, Baker can paint a larger picture using a small cross-section or an excerpt from her own autobiography. She is a brilliant writer.
Now, back to the new sound. It’s so much more complex than anything I could have expected. The examples are everywhere throughout the album. Atop her piano and guitar in “Relative Fiction,” there are drums, keyboard properties and some pleasing harmonization. It was the first track that had me do a double take, slide the dot on the screen and listen again.
There are also a lot of hints of synthetic sounds and effects added after recording—which is fine—just something unexpected from Baker. The first single from the record, “Faith Healer,” is a prime example of that. The song is great and totally authentic, just different. The addition of percussion also serves her music well, as in the second single, “Hardline,” really adding an emotional punch to her quivering voice.
I have found myself playing Little Oblivions over and over again—its seeds have seemingly been planted deep, nurtured by my need to be understood, and are growing steadily in my mind. I feel the album reflects upon the chaos we are currently living through, as well as a reflection of Baker’s own run-ins with adversity and similar experiences of others. The strata of sound here, many being new additions to her book of spells and performed by Baker herself, mark this album as a possible catalyst for the exploration of completely new heights. Little Oblivions might be Baker’s Blonde on Blonde or Revolver. It could be a window into a vast world of creativity she has barely begun to tamper with. I was correct in my initial assessment of Julien Baker—she can do no wrong. –Billy Swartzfager