If you’re already familiar with Julien Baker’s pared back, acoustic guitar and piano-led songwriting, the wider sonic palette is the first thing you’ll notice about Little Oblivions – the exhilarating gasp of synthesiser on “Faith Healer”; the way that “Hardline” roars and crunches to its conclusion; the stately, synthetic percussion underpinning “Relative Fiction”. The Memphis songwriter’s adoption of drums on this third album – her second for Matador – has, as she has joked in interviews, the potential for a Dylan moment given the sparse confessionals typical of her work to date.
But regardless of ornamentation, Baker’s writing remains a rigorous and unforgiving thing, her words too intimate for daylight hours. The characters in these 12 songs seek redemption in substances, shared secrets and snake oil merchants as Baker casts herself somewhere between protagonist and narrator, sometimes in the gutter, sometimes watching from the side of the road as it all goes up in smoke.
Little Oblivions was recorded in Memphis as 2019 turned into 2020 with Calvin Lauber and Craig Silvey, both of whom worked with Baker on 2017’s Turn Out the Lights. It was a period that – just months before much of the world was forced to turn inward, in varying degrees of lockdown – marked the end of a tumultuous time for Baker: both her second album and boygenius, her collaborative project with friends and fellow songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, attracted significant attention and a gruelling live schedule. That summer, medical reasons forced the cancellation of a run of planned European dates and Baker went quiet, reemerging with boygenius on the spring 2020 solo album from Paramore’s Hayley Williams.
Written during that period of turbulence, the songs that make up Little Oblivions seem to predict the collective trauma of 2020: stark lyrical references to violence, vice and what is ultimately the inability to escape from oneself, whether by placing one’s faith in a god or a bottle. The songs are also, curiously, some of the most uplifting Baker has yet written – in part because of the dizzying melodic highs, in part because of the way the songwriter remains standing, defiant, in the face of self-examination at its most brutal.
In this context, “Heatwave”, the album’s second track, is particularly stunning: an unflinching portrayal of the gruesome, self-absorbed reality of an extreme depressive episode. Its central conceit is Baker witnessing a violent accident; her voice dispassionate, disconnected from the electric guitar melody line despite the brutality of the subject matter. “I had the shuddering thought,” she sings, as the car bursts into flames in front of her, “this was gonna make me late for work.”
That relatively subdued track gives way to “Faith Healer”; inspired, says Baker, by the cognitive dissonance of substance abuse. It’s one of the album’s busiest, musically, but there is intention in every sonic detail: the way the melody seesaws over the verses and bridge before the crunch of the chorus, the way Baker’s voice switches between whisper and exorcism. The music is liberating, the lyrics – “I’ll believe you if you make me feel something” – perfectly capturing the paradox of finding escape in the things that you shouldn’t.
Some cognitive dissonance may also be required to get your head around Baker playing almost every instrument on the album – unless, perhaps, you caught her joyful drumming behind Hayley Williams in a live session just before Christmas, or have stumbled across her high school band Forrister on Bandcamp. The raucousness of “Hardline”, cathartic pop chorus of “Relative Fiction” and “Highlight Reel” – which takes half the opening riff from Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and corrupts it into something as claustrophobic as its lyrics – make the quieter moments all the more powerful.
Of these, “Song In E” is the most gut-wrenching: a vocal and piano performance on which you can hear every creak, Baker brutalising herself on behalf of a past heartbreak. “I wish you’d hurt me,” she sings, almost tenderly, “it’s the mercy I can’t take”. On “Bloodshot”, the song which gives the album both its title and its epigraph, the louds and quiets are juxtaposed to particularly devastating effect, all but the most minimal piano dropping away to highlight that “there is no glory in love”.
The album is an embarrassment of lyrical riches, every line a tattoo on the skin. Like Phoebe Bridgers, Baker has a particular knack for tiny details that grab the listener: a moth trapped in the grille of a car on “Favor”, a song which features backing vocals from her boygenius collaborators; a burning engine; the drunks in the bar talking over the band. Everything on Little Oblivions will make you feel, and it’s the catharsis we all need.