Julien Baker: Little Oblivions (Matador) - review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Julien Baker

Little Oblivions


Feb 24, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

While I love Julien Baker’s music, I oftentimes have to be in a certain mood to listen to it. Her particular style of brutally honest singer/songwriter music is obviously ill-suited for a party or a breezy car ride, but it’s also sometimes too much, to me, for even a casual listen. Usually, Baker’s music soundtracks the sort of disconsolate, searching moments that she herself explored on 2017’s Turn Out the Lights and 2015’s Sprained Ankle. However, that aspect might have changed with her newest work. Julien Baker sounds reinvented on Little Oblivions, employing an expanded sound that is instantly gratifying and anthemic, drawing you in before hitting you with the full force of its crushing emotional weight.

Whereas the first moments on Turn Out the Lights are understated and meditative, opening with a creaking door and an atmospheric piano instrumental, Baker announces her return in dramatic fashion on Little Oblivions. The swelling opening tones of “Hardline” feel unlike anything thus far in her discography with crashing drums and distorted guitars, making her sound more rich and vibrant than ever.

Baker has already joked in interviews about the record, billing it as her “Dylan goes electric” moment, and the comparison is apt in the initial shock of stabbing synthesizers of “Hardline.” Of course, the antecedents have long been there with Baker, both in the high moments of Turn Out the Lights and in Baker’s time in punk bands. A closer comparison to one of Baker’s contemporaries might be Angel Olsen’s My Woman, and Baker fits seamlessly into the rock singer/songwriter mold. The startlingly gorgeous heights on “Relative Fiction” or “Ringside” never feel like a cynical gimmick and only heighten the impact of searing ballads such as “Crying Wolf.”

Despite the expanded instrumental palette, Little Oblivions might also be Baker’s bleakest album yet. For an artist that has been long known for works of despondent emotion, that is no small feat. Her self-excoriating reflections are just as present and cutting here as on her previous work, in no way blunted by the record’s sweeping instrumental grandeur. Unsurprising, given the record was written in an immensely turbulent time for Baker personally, as she canceled her 2019 tour for health reasons and took time away from music to finish her degree.

Baker’s demons are a constant presence, as is her inexorable draw towards them. “Faith Healer” examines the desire to surrender to the escape of addiction with devastating honesty, comparing substances to the false peace of a grifting faith healer. The record finds Baker at her lowest, laying all of her worst impulses and most broken moments bare. “Bloodshot” marries the acoustic and full band elements of the record, highlighting her biggest confession with a minimal piano accompaniment as Baker sings, “I do anything knowing you would forgive me/There’s no glory in love/Only the gore of our hearts.”

Throughout the record, Baker asks an unheard listener forgiveness, yet makes no secret that she doesn’t believe she deserves it. The rawest moments of the record accompany stark confessions, the most heartrending of which comes in the quiet pain of “Song In E.” Known to fans as “Mercy,” Baker denies that she is even deserving of sympathy or grace, singing “I wish you’d hurt me/It’s the mercy I can’t take.” Given Baker has made no secret of her Christian faith, the admission almost has a dual meaning. It’s even harder to know who she is calling to on closer “Ziptie” as she asks “When you going to call it off?/Climb down off of the cross and change your mind.” It could be Jesus, a self-sacrificing loved one, or even a bitter swipe at Baker’s own solipsistic musical lens. In every case though, Baker’s lyrics cut as deep as ever.

Ultimately, her recent period of artistic silence and personal trials results in Julien Baker’s most masterful work to date. The expanded sonic palette reimagines the possibilities of her music and makes for Baker’s most dynamic work yet. What’s more, none of the impact of her heart wrenching lyricism is lost in the transition. Between the record’s self-inflicted barbs, there’s a quiet triumph that Baker is even here to deliver them on Little Oblivions. Baker lays open the worst of what 2019 held for her but comes out the other side roaring her pain to the heavens. Baker’s howl is ultimately the sound of a hard-won survival and there continues to be a powerful sense of hope and catharsis in that. (www.julienbaker.com)

Author rating: 9/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10


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