Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Julien Baker’s Little Oblivions is her most vulnerable record yet—and her best

Julien Baker
Julien Baker
Photo: Alyssa Gafkjen

At the beginning of the year, Julien Baker told KEXP’s Cheryl Waters that when she wrote her sophomore album, Turn Out The Lights, she felt it necessary to say something that was ultimately positive, yet still in the brutally honest tone that won fans over in her debut, Sprained Ankle. Baker has never shied away from addressing some of her deepest, darkest moments: recovering from substance abuse, being in toxic relationships, experiencing mental health issues, examining her dynamic with religion as someone who is both a devout Christian and gay. But Turn Out The Lights felt cautious, with Baker processing her sorrow and past mistakes while wrapping the narrative in a hopeful outlook, declaring that she’s ready to leave the past behind and move forward to a better life.

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Her new album, Little Oblivions, ignores that impulse. Instead Baker doesn’t worry over how her fan base might view her. You can tell she’s writing for herself this time around. Here Baker gives a deeper insight into her psyche, seemingly processing thoughts in real time as she sings. Many of the songs were written when the artist experienced a relapse after speaking extensively about her recovery from substance abuse. Rather than hiding that aspect of her personal life, Baker narrates her missteps and the frustrations she has with herself throughout the album.

In many ways, Little Oblivions is a re-introduction to Baker’s music. Both of her previous records focused on a soft, minimalist sound that highlighted Baker’s powerful voice and words. It’s the kind of music that is best listened to alone. Even her live shows replicate those records’ intimacy; a cough from an audience member is enough to distract from Baker’s performance. But Little Oblivions takes on a heavier sound reminiscent of her time in Forrister and The Star Killers. This is a version of Baker—one that carries emo and pop-punk roots—that many are not familiar with. The introduction of drums and synths feels appropriate for this record, as they intensify the emotion of the lyrics.

Lead single “Faith Healer” gives the sensation of being on a carnival ride; the tonality change is thrilling, with the synths unexpectedly dominating the song. It matches the intensity of Baker’s lyrics, as she notes that she knows relapsing will be harmful, but she misses the high substances give her. The song’s instrumentation is in stark contrast to one of Little Oblivions’ other standout tracks, “Song In E,” a piano ballad reminiscent of her previous albums. (Baker wrote the song in 2018, introducing it at live shows as “Mercy.”) This time, that spare sound enhances the cold, uncomfortable feeling of being left alone after Baker’s actions negatively affect her loved ones. It shines in its vulnerability, as she sings, “I wish you’d come over / Not to stay, just to tell me that I was your biggest mistake to my face / And then leave me alone in an empty apartment / Face down in the carpet.”

Little Oblivions sometimes teeters into pop territory, creating an enthralling juxtaposition with the heavier content. “Crying Wolf” could easily be mistaken for a Billie Eilish ballad, and “Favor” (featuring Baker’s Boygenius bandmates Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus on backing vocals) uses drums to its advantage, making way for a livelier sound.

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Bridgers has said that she considers Little Oblivions to be her favorite thing Baker has ever done—and it’s not difficult to agree. With Little Oblivions, the singer-songwriter has made her most cohesive record yet. The resuscitation of a heavier sound works in Baker’s favor, while she still adds hints of the fragile gentleness that has captivated fans since her Sprained Ankle days. Even when Baker claims all her mistakes have left her unworthy of others’ kindness, you can’t help but root for her, hoping she’ll relish in the beauty she’s created.