Review | Julien Baker’s Stunning, Heart-Wrenching ‘Little Oblivions’

“I missed making ugly sounds” said Julien Baker in the lead up to ‘Little Oblivions’ release; the follow up to her critically acclaimed, understated sophomore album. Fittingly, ‘Little Oblivions’ is a brutally honest and uncomfortable – yet utterly essential listen. In contrast to the stripped back sound of ‘Turn Out The Lights’, Baker’s third album is loud and brash – evidenced most vividly on opening track ‘Hardline’; which builds up to a crescendo of thumping guitars and drums. Just as hard-hitting as the abrasive instrumentation on ‘Hardline’ is the staggeringly honest lyricism, with the song – and therefore the album – beginning with the lines “Blacked out on a weekday / Still something that I’m trying to avoid / Start asking for forgiveness in advance / For all the future things I will destroy”.

Centring around themes of depression, substance abuse and suicidal tendencies, the album is packed with these sort of haunting moments that stop you in your tracks. On ‘Heatwave’ – which centres around a deadly car accident – Baker sings “Nothing to lose till everything’s gone / It’s worse than death that life compressed / To fill a page in the Sunday paper”. Meanwhile, album highlight ‘Favor’ sees Baker’s powerful voice reduced to little more than a whisper as she asks “what right had you not to let me die? /…Did I even know what I was asking for?”. Elsewhere, these moments of disarming honesty are replaced by metaphors and intricate imagery, as Baker waxes poetic. ‘Faith Healer’, the album’s third track and first single, sees Baker struggle to remain off drugs, as she – and those around her – ignore the warning signs of relapse (“The smoke alarm’s been going off for weeks / No one showed up and half the time it isn’t what you think”). It is the combination of these moments, along with the more straightforward confessionals that cement Baker as one of the greatest living songwriters of our time.

‘Little Oblivions’ isn’t an album that seeks to find solutions to the problems it explores; instead it is a 12-track exploration of the process of falling apart, while trying to abstain from the vices that you used to numb the pain. On ‘Faith Healer’ Baker offers a striking portrayal of a former drug addict: “Ooh, I miss it high, how it dulled the terror and the beauty / And now I see everything in startling intensity”. On ‘Heatwave’, she seems ready to end it all (“I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck / And kick the chair our”) and, on ‘Song In E’ – perhaps the album’s most vulnerable tune – she struggles to accept mercy and herself (“I’d say ‘give me no sympathy’ / It’s the mercy I can’t take”, “I wish that I drank because of you and not only because of me”).

Yet, while centring on desperation and hopelessness, ‘Little Oblivions’ is an album of remarkable resilience. At it’s core, it’s about growing up an outcast – In Baker’s case, growing up a Gay, Christian socialist in a deeply conservative area -, battling the demons of addiction and depression and still surviving. It doesn’t offer any easy solutions because there aren’t any; it doesn’t offer a path forward, but it is, in and of itself, a commitment to putting one foot in front of another no matter what. At it’s core ‘Little Oblivions’ is an ode to the strength of the permanently broken.

Score: 8.1

Best Tracks: Favor, Heatwave, Faith Healer, Song In E

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