There are two ways the term “heavy” can be used to describe music: form and content. Heaviness in form is something very familiar to this blog, given the amount of metal this blog covers. But today we will be examining heaviness in content, in the form of Julien Baker’s stunning new album Little Oblivions.
This album is a bit of a departure from Baker’s previous work, as she’s taken a full-band approach here rather than the more bare-bones instrumentation of her previous work. None of the raw sincerity of the previous albums is lost though; if anything, the fuller instrumentation (most of which is played by Baker herself) complements the intimate lyrics nicely. It also provides pivotal moments of contrast for some of the most devastating lyrics. A strong example of this is “Bloodline”, where suspended piano chords bring the song’s driving beat to a halt about two-thirds of the way through. In this quiet moment, Baker delivers the line “There’s no glory in love / Only the gore of our hearts”, which gives way to an intense, climactic outro. The hazy guitars and keyboards of “Relative Fiction” play into the anguish and desperation conveyed by lines like “I don’t need a savior, I just need you to take me home.”
Both tracks referenced above play into the album’s overall theme of internal reflections on substance abuse and addiction. The album’s 12 tracks grapple with Bakers’ escape from these false escapisms. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it’s hard not to imagine that the number of tracks is an intentional reference to a 12 Step Program. Baker’s candid musings on addiction are expanded to an overall theme of the clash between reality and escapism. The result is an album that’s simultaneously deeply personal yet relatable.
If you were to listen to Little Oblivions without paying mind to the lyrics, you’d probably just see it as a pleasant, well-constructed indie folk record. A majority of the songs are written in major keys, yet the lyrics yield a stark contrast. There are plenty of cutting, tragic one-liners throughout the album; like “Just like a nicotine patch; it hardly works then it’s over” in “Favor” and “I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck and kick the chair out” in “Heat Wave”. There are some reprised lyrical motifs too – the pleads to “feel something” in “Faith Healer” and dismal of pity in “Relative Fiction” become the line “I wish you’d hurt me / It’s the mercy I can’t take” that appears again in “Song in E”.
Excellent lyricists can make bad vocals work, and excellent singers can make bad lyrics work, but to excel at both is something else. Julien Baker breaks out the vocal parkour all over Little Oblivions. Her technical ability in vibrato and jumps in pitch is impressive, yet she sings with a candor that bears no pretension. If you’re a fan of Baker’s previous work, you’re probably already well aware that she’s a great singer, and this album strongly reaffirms that. It’s just great to hear her voice in the context of a “full-band” solo project. But to give a nod to other projects Baker’s been involved in, her boygenius partners in crime Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus join in on backing vocals for one of the album’s highlights “Favor”.
Bringing that full-band aspect up again, the production and instrumentmentation choices on Little Oblivions also need to be commended. The album starts with the sigh of a mellotron and ends with a heart rate monitor, perfectly bookending the album’s narrative arc. Elsewhere we have successful embellishments like the bluegrass instrumentation of “Heat Wave” and the samples used in “Faith Healer”.
I probably just could have kept this review short and just said I am in awe of Julien Baker’s new album Little Oblivions. This album is on another level, and I truly hope it catapults Julien Baker further up in the pantheon of great indie and folk artists. In case you haven’t gathered by this review, I highly recommend checking out this album when it drops – it’s quite the experience!
Julien Baker‘s new album Little Oblivions is out everywhere on February 26th via Matador Records.
Best Tracks: Favor, Bloodshot, Relative Fiction, Hardline
Weakest Tracks: n/a
FFO: Phoebe Bridgers, The Mountain Goats, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy