Julien Baker – Little Oblivions Album Review

Matador Records – 2021

It’s overwhelming to think of how much the world has changed since Julien Baker’s sophomore record Turn Out The Lights. Starting out tied to the contemporary American emo scene of the 2010’s, Baker along with her contemporaries Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus have all moved past their slowcore, quaint indie folk origins and created instrumentally rich records full that have propelled their careers forward. 

A phrase floating around on Twitter before this album came out was “depression, but with drums” and if i’m being honest, Little Oblivions fits that description nicely. There is of course a lot more depth to it than that but the added percussion, especially on tracks like “Bloodshot” and “Ringside” make you wonder what Baker’s music would have been like had this been the norm from the start? The percussion ranges from hard hitting acoustic snare beats and cymbals to minimalistic loops that you feel like were added in with painstaking attention to detail. 

Opener “Hardline” blasts your eardrums with a multitude of vibrant instrumentation choices, coupled with Baker’s acceptance of regression and struggles with addiction in the lyrics, making this a strong track to set off the album. It’s the first gut punch of many on Little Oblivions, with lyrics like “I’m telling my own fortune, something I cannot escape, I can see where this is going, but I can’t find the brake”. On her first release Sprained Ankle she claimed that she wished she could write songs about anything other than death, and even if it’s not always literally about death, Little Oblivions in a way has become a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

However, the expectations ‘Hardline’ sets for the rest of the record are hard to top. When Baker relied solely on her guitar and subtle ornamentations in her previous work, this made her songs a lot more memorable. In this case, it feels like there’s almost too much going on with Little Oblivions for tracks to always necessarily stand out on their own. “Faith Healer” and “Repeat” are the biggest departures from Baker’s sound, and despite some hard hitting, self deprecating lines, the by the numbers indie instrumentation becomes more of a distraction than enhancing the listening experience. The gospel inspired backing vocals on “Favor” provided by her Boygenius bandmates work well in a more stripped back context, even if it’s because the acoustic guitar lead is reminiscent of early Elliott Smith. 

Case in point, “Song in E” sees Baker reaching almost cinematic heights with lavish piano notes, each key hit with further deliberation than the last. It doesn’t need a full backing ensemble to get its point across and would feel unnecessary if this were the case. She holds nothing back expressing this desire for self punishment and validation through that rather than whoever she’s hurt giving her nothing in return, even if from the outside that seems like the mature option; “I wish you’d hurt me, it’s the mercy I can’t take.” 

Fans who wanted a fuller experience of Baker’s blunt autobiographical ventures will have a lot to sink their teeth into on Little Oblivions, alongside being able to channel cynical viewpoints and criticisms of herself into a form of empowerment rather than self pity or cringe. For the most part Baker is strongest when the instrumentation is minimal as too many of the songs on here don’t quite hit the same consistency of quality, despite the earnest songwriting. This is her biggest sounding album yet, but doesn’t always manage to make a lasting impression.

Lucy Dacus releases new single “Thumbs”

Photo by Marin Leong

Lucy Dacus has shared new single “Thumbs”, a live favourite that was originally written in Autumn 2018. The new heartbreaking single features just Dacus’ swaying vocals over a distant synth pad as she tells the story of helping a friend to move on from a past lover. It’s emotionally fuelled and you can feel it in every corner of the song, with Dacus masterfully placing you in that moment with the weight of it all washing over you with the wind samples.

Speaking on the new single Dacus said:

Like most songs I write, I wasn’t expecting it and it made me feel weird, almost sick. It tells the story of a day I had with a friend during our freshman year of college, a significant day, but not one that I had thought of for years. I started playing it live a month or so later during the boygenius tour after Phoebe and Julien encouraged me to. I knew I wanted a long time to get used to playing it since it made me feel shaky, so I ended sets with it for about half the shows I played in 2019. Before I played it, I would ask the audience to please not record it, a request that seems to have been respected, which I’m grateful for.

Listen to the new song below.

Julien Baker announces new album Little Oblivions and shares new single

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Julien Baker has announced her newest album Little Oblivions which is set to be released February 26th via Matador. This is the follow up to 2017’s Turn Out The Lights. She has also shared the first single from the album titled “Faith Healer” with an accompanying video.

Speaking about the new song Baker said:

“Put most simply, I think that “Faith Healer” is a song about vices, both the obvious and the more insidious ways that they show up in the human experience. I started writing this song 2 years ago and it began as a very literal examination of addiction. For awhile, I only had the first verse, which is just a really candid confrontation of the cognitive dissonance a person who struggles with substance abuse can feel—the overwhelming evidence that this substance is harming you, and the counterintuitive but very real craving for the relief it provides. When I revisited the song I started thinking about the parallels between the escapism of substance abuse and the other various means of escapism that had occupied a similar, if less easily identifiable, space in my psyche.

There are so many channels and behaviors that we use to placate discomfort unhealthily which exist outside the formal definition of addiction. I (and so many other people) are willing to believe whomever—a political pundit, a preacher, a drug dealer, an energy healer—when they promise healing, and how that willingness, however genuine, might actually impede healing.”

Earlier in the years Baker also appeared on Boygenius bandmate, Phoebe Bridgers standout sophomore album Punisher, read our review here.

Watch the new video below.