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“Gay religious trauma music” is the most accurate description I’ve ever heard of Julien Baker. The 25-year-old American singer and multi-instrumentalist has been on a slow but steady upward trajectory since ‘Sprained Ankle‘ dropped in 2015 and blew up on Bandcamp, with things going into hyperdrive off the back of Turn Out The Lights‘ in 2017, one of the few records that I’ve given a perfect score to. (And was my AOTY for that particular year.) As for ‘Little Oblivions‘, it honestly isn’t on the same level as its predecessor; it’s not the same record. But nor should it be! ‘Turn Out The Lights‘ was such an important moment for Julien as a person and artist, a release that means the world to me and countless others. To get a mere facsimile of that LP four years later would only dilute the impact of both records.
So Julien’s branched out, taking her music to new realms, something first heralded by the expanded directions of her 2019 Record Store Day singles. This is all code for her bringing in loads more instrumental variety on ‘Little Oblivions,’ her no longer being restricted to pianos or a loop-pedal. With nearly all the instruments performed by Julien, the addition of fluttering synthesisers, banjos, mandolins, drones, organs, shimmering electric guitars, new tones, fleshed-out rhythm sections, and denser textures? It all enriches the heartache and honesty of her words, never distracting from them. Given the power and fan-love for her old approach of making the listener hang on every word, this was perhaps a risky move, to add in more musical content than the stark guitar-and-vocal minimalism of what she’d built hitherto. But it’s a risk that’s paid off immensely! As none of the choices made are “off” or questionable; it all works, and it all serves the personal stories she tells. Because Julien’s lyricism is just so cutting. It’s why we’re all here!
To me, ‘Little Oblivions‘ is about capturing those small but crucial moments in our lives that define us and our relationships with others. Both those connections that are just forming and those whose bridges have been torched to the ground. Seeing authentic anecdotes portrayed, spilling her guts about personal experiences of break-ups, long nights, alcoholism, recovery, and regret is as gripping as ever. It’s about her own “oblivions”; those small but important moments over the last few years, those little things that hurt the most. These 12 songs all play-out like morning-after clarity thoughts; when you’re sober and/or thinking clearer, and wondering: “why did I say X? Why did I do Y!?”
‘Hardline‘ starts out with this loud, shaking organ that lulls down as Julien’s dulcet voice floats above it. She muses over layers of pumping drums and heavenly synths and guitars about her reliance on self-destructive tendencies, an inability to stop herself; “I can see where this is going, but I can’t find the breaks.” It’s a line in the sand that’s constantly crossed, no matter how many times she draws it. It’s an anxious examination of what she feels is her talent at fucking up anything and everything; that she might as well ruin things right now because at some point in the future, she’ll screw it up. It’s quite fatalistic, about telling your own fortunes, not being able to slam the brakes on the mistakes being made. A near-universal fear musically embodied perfectly.
‘Heatwave’ carries with it this chilled, summery guitar lead to help sell the song’s country-rock vibe. And it is country, except good. This sees the Tennessee singer make a bit of a mixed metaphor between old burnt-out cars on the roadside and fiery shooting stars, featuring one of the darkest ideations on suicide Julien pens on this record: “I was on a long spiral down, but before I make it to the ground, I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck and kick the chair out.” Dayumn, girl. The opening movements of ‘Heatwave‘ – mixing acoustic guitar, banjo and steel guitar – morph as the drums and pianos enter, seeing a spooky alienesque synth rear its head, one that in any others hands would be annoying.
‘Faith Healer‘ is a dive into Julien’s issues with addiction and substance abuse, sharing the perspective of her likening “faith healers” – people that you seek refuge in and seek advice from – to that of crooked dealers. The metaphor is clear: shady people who’ll take whatever they can from you just so you can feel something, as she states point-blank in the song’s thumping choruses. The tension of this song, with all of the percussive and electronic loops, and rising post-rock guitars, is a brilliant shining moment of how far Julien’s songwriting has come. This is likely going to be the “hit” for her moving forward into this third album cycle, and the song speaks for itself as to why it was chosen as the lead single.
The beautifully moody but ultimately bittersweet and self-aware ‘Relative Fiction’ is the picture of self-contempt; a very real cry for help aimed towards the one you’re with, to stop seeing oneself as the hero in the story. “If I didn’t have a mean bone in my body, I’d find some other way to cause you pain” she croons before the drums kick in and a delay-soaked muted-guitar plays over it to make for some terrific musical frission. How this number morphs in dynamics and instrumentals, growing outward in layers as it moves forward on it’s reflective, brutally honest path is so simple but so wonderful.
Lacking any drums, ‘Crying Wolf‘ is a minimal return-to-roots track for Julien, what with the cavernous guitar licks and the lovely grand piano accompaniment. But the stripped-down nature of the tune allows her words to barrel to the forefront; sentiments of the singer no longer “crying wolf,” just admitting that she’s out there looking for them still; “In the morning when I wake up naked in their den. I’ll swear off all the things I thought that got me here. And in the evening I’ll come back again.”
Sounding like a long lost relic from The National that’s since been unearthed, ‘Bloodshot‘ is one of the brighter, more upbeat songs of the whole record. Well, about as “bright” or as “upbeat” as a Julien Baker record is going to get! Yet it doesn’t lose any of its heart. This is one of the most important songs on the album, if for the sheer fact that its core line “there’s no glory in love, only the gore of our hearts” is inscribed on the album’s front cover: summarising the album’s theme neatly. The slapback delay that rests over the snare drum keeps the percussion snappy (especially once the tom fills start running in the song’s final third), and how the guitars and keys support Julien’s vocals of forgiveness and the album title’s namedrop is held together nicely. ‘Bloodshot’ marks the halfway point of the record and there hasn’t been a single dud to be found. A pace the record maintains well through its second half.
‘Ringside‘ is like the sequel to ‘Shadowboxing’, hearing Julien talk about how she’s in the octagon with herself, giving her loved ones a ring-side view to the fight. It’s all about second chances when you think you don’t deserve them. It’s also where her faith and religious side come into play, her even asking Jesus to trade her in for a “briar crown” (a crown of thorns.) The distorted, slightly over-saturated guitars that drone throughout the piece lends it this noise-rock feel but they never overwhelm the track’s delicacy. It eventually flips the script when the song winds down over dry acoustic plectrum strokes, simple snare-kick beats as Julien shifts the perspective to herself; that she’s now the one giving the second chances, not only receiving them herself.
‘Favor‘ is a new classic for Julien Baker’s catalogue, like ‘Sour Breath’ before it. (But the American spelling of it sets my auto-correct off something fierce.) It carries with it this haunting vibe, this sunken feeling, what with drones and darker chord progressions as the whole thing sounds like it’s in mourning and the fuller harmonies that Julien stacks (with help from her Boygenius peers in Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers) elevate it. It’s her ruminating that she’d miss everyone more than they’d miss her when she’s gone; about the slowly-running out good-will that she thinks she has left with others. It’s a song scarily capturing that horrible feeling people suffering from depression have, thinking that they can’t ask for help repeatedly, believing there’s only so many times they need aid before people will finally turn their backs. Of course, that’s rarely ever the case, but the mind plays cruel tricks.
‘Song In E‘ is the album’s simple interlude, a song feeling overwhelmed by other people’s kindness, mercy and love even in the face of our mistakes. Julien’s vocals and her piano-playing tell a very relatable story of “imposter syndrome” – that you don’t feel worthy of other’s sympathy, specifically, and that maybe they should just hurt you instead. It’s a vulnerable track, which is saying plenty given the other sentiments she puts forward across this album. Over stabs of piano and lo-fi drum loops, ‘Repeat‘ weaves together the need to be with another; to chase them; to tell them you miss them; that it doesn’t matter what they say, just that you hear them. But how these feelings are trumped by fears that they will leave. And the way Julien’s voice distorts and wavers thanks to some well-administered delay in the outro as she repeats “repeating” is a chilling touch.
The record’s emotional low-point has gotta be ‘Highlight Reel‘, seeing her being passed out in the back of a taxi-cab, likening it to like she’s drowning in some sinking glass tomb. That her tired eyelids are like “a projector scratched in the back” of her eyes, playing the best moments – the figurative highlight reel – of a previous relationship once the fire ended and the dust settled. It’s a fucking gut punch and a half, man, but like all things she’s written over the last six years, it’s devoid of artificiality or of ever feeling forced. Her greatest skill as a musician and story-teller.
In closer ‘Ziptie,’ string noises between the sombre guitar chords, ride-cymbal strikes, radar-bleeping synths, and harmonic minor arpeggios move under her vocals about feeling like someone has her head wrapped up in a figurative ziptie. It’s one of the few moments on ‘Little Oblivions‘ where religious imagery boil to the top (“come down off the cross and change your mind“), but it never becomes preachy or like she’s doing it as some notion of worship. I always view this finale as a call for Julien herself to get off that cross, to stop hurting, and to start turning these depressed feelings around. Within this last song comes her realisation, her disappointment in finding “out how much everybody looks like me.” Seeing her own “little oblivions”, just as everyone else’s come into view.
‘Little Oblivions’ doesn’t hit the same way as her first two records, but that’s okay, as Julien Baker’s latest heartfelt portfolio displays an insane amount of growth for one of this generation’s defining female voices. The sheer growth in the songwriting, production and sound that Julien explores with ‘Little Oblivions’ should be applauded. So too should be how much of her exposed heart she wears on her sleeve here, offering just enough relatability and mystery about her life, relationships and hurt to allow people to not only empathise with her but to also cling desperately to every word and make these songs their own. This album might not blow up as her last two did (I’d love to be proven wrong), and it likely won’t be as special as those albums (I don’t love it the same way I do the previous one), but there’s not a dud to be found on these 12 songs. This is a break-up indie-rock record with heart; it’s depression with added drums; it’s so goddamn melancholic but also littered with hints of hope and silver-linings that it’s as moving as ever. Where Julien goes from here is entirely her call. The music from this gay 25-year-old American indie singer-songwriter still deeply touches the cynical heart of this 25-year-old straight-edge bisexual dude from Australia. And he’s forever thankful for that.
Song In E
‘Little Oblivions’ is out now. Watch Julien perform ‘Faith Healer’ on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert: