Julien Baker’s third solo album, “Little Oblivions,” is not easy to listen to. The twelve-track record is by no means mindless background music — it demands the attention of the listener. Set to radio rock choruses and, at times, triumphant soaring vocals, this album still features Baker’s signature heart-wrenching lyrics.
Baker, a Tennessee native, uses a full band of sorts in “Little Oblivions” — although it’s really a one-woman show. Baker plays a myriad of instruments on this album — alongside her go-to guitar and keyboard, we hear her playing bass, banjo, mandolin and drums. Certainly, a sonic step-up from her 2015 album, “Sprained Ankle,” and 2017’s “Turn Out the Lights,” Baker uses “Little Oblivions'' as a chance to push back against the arc of positivity and redemption she laid out for herself in her first two albums. The 25-year-old has been open about her struggles with substance abuse as a teen, and her latest release gives her the freedom to explore the pain and frustration of relapse. Baker also writes about her experiences as a queer woman growing up in the Christian Church and experiencing doubt.
Every song on “Little Oblivions” has a moment — multiple in some tracks — where the ground drops out from beneath you and you plummet into a soundscape of doubt and sorrow. That being said, it’s not all sad. Those moments often are often attached to an almost ecstatic understanding of Baker’s pain. To call the album simply sad or depressing — or “sad girl indie,” a label Baker and her boygenius bandmate Lucy Dacus have pushed back against — would be to erase the power and strength that comes from accepting doubt, failure and frustration as part of one’s emotional, physical and spiritual journey.
On the first listen, each song sounds like it could be the ending track to the album. This exhaustive yet cathartic repetition is perhaps on purpose — mimicking the emotional rollercoaster that comes with addiction, struggles with religion, grief and heartbreak. Some might say that Baker’s entire discography is a discussion of these key issues. The repeat themes we see on “Little Oblivions” are not used to glamorize or romanticize sorrow — the repetition is just a symptom of the struggle itself. As Baker said in an interview with Stereogum, “I don’t want to sensationalize these [bleak periods]. These are experiences that I’ve written about before because they’re similar to experiences that I had in childhood and teenage-dom.” 2019 proved to be a difficult year for Baker and her struggle with substance abuse. “Little Oblivions” is an exercise in exploring those bleak experiences and the nonlinear cycle of recovery.
Baker’s lyrical prowess is undeniable, but for those familiar with the sound of her first two albums and her collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus in boygenius, this album might almost feel overproduced. This new full-band and at times synthetic sound will definitely translate well to on-stage and live performances. But “Little Oblivions” does not really seem to be catering to Baker’s audience, or any audience for that matter. It is Baker’s experiment in unapologetically exploring her own struggles.
There’s still a piece of Baker that worries about isolation in her sorrow, even as she owns up to her experiences. That worry wars with her self-deprecation. She asks in “Favor” — with backup vocals from her boygenius bandmates — “How long do I have until / I’ve spent up everyone’s goodwill?” Immediately after, in “Song in E,” she sings, “Give me no sympathy / It’s the mercy I can’t take."
The doubt and spiritual frustration that weave through this album humanize the experience of recovery. “Little Oblivions” intentionally removes Baker from any pedestal she might have originally been put on as a poster child for queer artists, those recovering from substance abuse or even “progressive Christians.” This is clear in the call and response between “Relative Fiction” and “Ziptie” when Baker sings, “I don’t need a savior / I need you to take me home” then “Good God / When you gonna call it off? / Climb down off of the cross / And change your mind?”
“Little Oblivions” and Baker escape genre and any sort of overly optimistic redemption arc. Baker lets the negatives in life breathe, and in turn frees herself. In this poetic, experimental album we learn alongside Baker that accepting doubt can become an ecstatic experience. With doubt comes freedom of exploration, and that freedom is a little oblivion of its own — worth fearing, but worth diving into as well