Julien Baker – ‘Little Oblivions’ review: songwriting with stunning emotional clarity

Unlike her earlier work, the Tennessee musician's third album features a full band, taking her anguished stories to greater heights

Just under two minutes into Julien Baker‘s third album ‘Little Oblivions’, the singer’s horizons burst wide open like a wound. “I can see where this is going, but I can’t find the brakes,” she sings on ‘Hardline’, predicting future pain and trauma while unable to divert herself away from the inevitable, before an avalanche of post-rock guitars and thumping drums burst through.

It’s the first time drums have been heard on one of the singer’s records, and opens the door for ‘Little Oblivions’, an album of stunning emotional clarity that sees Baker’s words sent skyward with help from the beefy instrumentation of a full band.

The Tennessee musician’s first two albums – 2015 debut ‘Sprained Ankle’ and 2017’s lauded follow-up ‘Turn Out The Lights’ – used space as their greatest weapon. Her affecting voice circled around a solo piano or guitar, letting each devastating lyric hang in the air and worm its way into your brain. Live, she played solo, looping reverb-drenched guitar lines until the repeated musical motifs became transcendent.

Advertisement

The explosion heard on ‘Hardline’ to open album three comes as a shock, then. There was always a chance that Baker’s bruised musings – she sung of depression, faith, sexuality and beyond with striking openness – would be diluted when trying to roar over an avalanche of instrumentation. Yet while the songs here are fleshed out and add plenty more musical textures, they feel like they’re working in service of her tender songwriting, rather than fighting against it.

On ‘Relative Fiction’, she sings of defeatism and fighting hopelessly against the bad parts of herself. “If I didn’t have a mean bone in my body, I’d find some other way to cause you pain,” she warns, before weighing up whether to let the pain toughen her up and numb her, or continue feeling everything fully, despite all the anguish that comes with it: “Do I get callous or do I stay tender?”

While these kind of devastating musings were splashed all across her first two albums, ‘Little Oblivions’ offers that fist-clenching musical release in all the right places too.

The album artwork for ‘Little Oblivions’ is scratched with one of the album’s most piercing lyrics: “There’s no glory in love, only the gore of our hearts,” Baker sings on ‘Bloodshot’. Her pain and fury can be tough to hear, and there’s no tidy closing resolution to falsely declare that it’ll actually all be fine. Baker’s bravery in simply laying it out this way suggests that if you dig deep enough into yourself too, there’s some light to be found at the bottom. It’s a start, at least.

Advertisement

Julien Baker
Release date: February 26
Record label: Matador

Advertisement
Advertisement