Music

Julien Baker’s Little Oblivions Saves Her From Herself

A powerful album that dives into the wreck of relationships, substance abuse, and religious doubt with glorious results.

A woman with shoulder-length hair performs on stage. She is playing a guitar and singing while wearing a t-shirt and jeans.
Musican Julien Baker performs onstage during FYF Fest 2016 at Los Angeles Sports Arena on August 28, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Every music lover knows that there are some artists who don’t connect with you, no matter how much you try. But as I’ve learned over time as a critic, you can find inroads to appreciating artists and even whole genres that don’t initially appeal to you—for instance, by investigating their cultural contexts, and trying to open your ears to the ways their core audiences hear them. It’s trickier with an artist beloved by people whose tastes you tend to share, whose music doesn’t stray far from what you already like. These more elusive distastes don’t sustain the same exploratory curiosity, making it more tempting to shrug, “Yeah, it just doesn’t work for me,” while kinda-sorta suspecting that your friends are ultimately kind of, you know, wrong.

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But then, on rare occasions, the artist themselves suddenly seem to solve the problem for you.

In the case of the 25-year-old Tennessee singer-songwriter Julien Baker, I suspected I was about to go through a conversion when I heard “Faith Healer,” the first single from her new, third album, Little Oblivions. I then fully converted last week, after a six-second sequence near the end of the tenth track, “Repeat,” gave me full-body shivers like no music that I’d heard in a long time. There, Baker sings, as she does throughout the album, about compulsive, self-destructive behaviors, and particularly here about the ways they spiral in on themselves and become sinkholes. She sings of mantras and self-fulfilling prophecies and recurring dreams, in melodic patterns that are themselves recapitulated over and over. Finally, after the line, “I’m stuck inside a vision that repeats, repeats, repeats…,” she goes on repeating “repeats” in a desperate, driven keen, until her voice starts to break up and garble and finally vanish, like a person calling out while being sucked under a wave by the undertow. That’s an image that’s been planted in the song from its first word, “ocean,” along with the shimmer of its central guitar riff. The vocal effect is an act of digital tone-painting that makes it feel as if all the syllables and notes preceding it have been stones that were filling up the singer’s pockets, until she made her final march out into the tide.

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Many of Little Oblivions’ tracks end on such fading loops rather than the kind of high-drama vocal crescendos that closed a lot of the songs on 2017’s Turn Out the Lights, which often seemed to me to be forcing climaxes and resolutions. These choices are among the many ways this record—on which Baker, like a Southeastern lesbian Prince, played basically all the instruments, including many layers of percussion and electronics—embraces the emotional potential of production itself, and through it the inevitable artifice of any act of performance. This is part of a cascade of breakthroughs that make Little Oblivions an immediate contender for one of 2021’s best records, and a radical departure—to me welcome, perhaps to some fans not—from her previous work.

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Baker’s promising 2015 debut Sprained Ankle was underproduced by necessity, as a spur-of-the-moment, demo-like solo recording. But with Turn Out the Lights, she elevated anti-production to a dogma, confining the piano/guitar/voice arrangements there to a kind of chilly austerity that she’s reflected upon in recent interviews, considering them more emotionally authentic at the time. “I didn’t want to afford myself embellishments,” as she told DIY Mag in January, now shaking her head in befuddlement over why she’d felt that way. She might have been aiming for acoustic intimacy, but to me, the instrumental sparseness was so out of balance with the forcefulness of the writing and the vocals— rooted in Baker’s mixed background in Southern Christian church music, hardcore punk, and the early-2010s emo revival—that the songs ended up sounding like they were dictating emotional reactions instead of eliciting them.

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There were certainly passages where I felt the electricity and honesty that her admirers did. And I wondered whether my responses would change if I’d seen her live, which so many concertgoers found a transformative experience. But as much as I’m a lifelong devotee of sad songs, the way Baker’s music tended to linger over and elongate lines that constantly circled back to depressive, anxious states ended up feeling wearyingly monotonous. In a parallel way, the lyrics themselves tended (in the way of many songs in the emo tradition) to be dominated by one emotional metaphor after another, while withholding everyday details that could have fleshed out the protagonists as people, not mere vessels of suffering.

The total effect reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s 1998 short story “The Depressed Person,” which brutally portrayed the unintentional coerciveness of depressive self-pity, as self-hatred ends up mirroring narcissistic self-regard, which tragically makes it all the harder for the depressed person to find any help or relief. In that sense, Baker was naturalistically depicting the states of mind that Turn Out the Lights was about. I know many fans found it life-saving to hear their darkest impulses and unwanted thoughts echoed back so precisely and openly. There have been points in my own life when big emotional wallows were something I sought out in artwork, but I’d been on the other side of that particular mode of processing for a long time, and it no longer spoke so much to me.

Baker’s lyrical moves are no longer foregone conclusions

It was impossible to be completely dismissive, though, because Baker was closely allied with two of the artists I’ve been most captivated by in recent years: Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, with whom she formed the cheekily so-called “supergroup” Boygenius, recording an EP and touring together in 2018. I could see that Baker was easily their match as a singer and instrumentalist, but while Bridgers’ and Dacus’ songs were equally dark and moody, Baker’s lacked their alleviating humor and constant surprise. I never knew where a Bridgers or Dacus song was headed structurally or thematically, while Baker’s lyrical moves usually seemed like foregone conclusions.

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Baker told The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino in 2017 that she resisted the temptation to make her lyrics “more complex, more pretty, more vague,” for fear of suppressing their emotional truth. It seemed almost a superstitious concern when set alongside the ways her soon-to-be bandmates relished the abundant, contradictory truths that could be found in complication. Ultimately, my reaction was to set Baker’s solo work aside for the time being, which meant I overlooked a couple of 2019 singles, “Tokyo” and “Red Door,” whose wider-screen arrangements and sharper-lensed lyrics heralded the turnabout to come. I’m mostly glad, though, as it’s made Little Oblivions a grander revelation.

The album announces its difference in the first second of its first track, “Hardline,” which opens with a set of guitar chords processed to sound like a fanfare played on an organ with fried circuitry—the kind of “unnatural” acoustics that would have been verboten on Turn Out the Lights. The gesture seems partly a self-aware wink to Baker’s longtime identification (however ambivalent) as a Christian, a bit of low-key sonic sacrilege towards the organ’s churchy roots. Later, when she sings, “I can see where this is goin’/ But I can’t find the braaaaake!”, the arrangement breaks out into a full barrage of electronic sound and drumrolling fury that is the diametric opposite of her earlier austerity regime. We’re instantly out beyond the boundaries of her old self-imposed rules—although in another way it’s a homecoming for Baker, who had played for years in an eclectic Memphis punk band called Forrister before going solo, a side of her music I hadn’t known of before now.

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It’s partly because of that musical momentum that the story the song tells—about a relationship in crisis because one of the partners has backslid into binge drinking—feels lived out in a dynamic present tense rather than, as in her older songs, merely re-enacted as a kind of demonstration, raw material for introspection. But there’s also an unexpected wryness to her self-excoriations here; in some songs there are even lines that qualify as jokes. After a long description on “Heatwave” of a bloody multi-vehicle highway pileup, which the Baker of 2017 might have punctuated by saying something like, “And that highway is my heart,” the Baker of 2021 instead delivers the stinger, “This was gonna make me late for work.” Throughout Little Oblivions, there’s a fresh freedom and range of expression that supplies exactly the wit and unexpectedness that had been wanting.

This liberatory artistic leap could be chalked up to simple maturation, but from the many forthright and deeply reflective interviews Baker’s given in the leadup to this release, we know it was a lot more specific. In 2019, after many years sober, she had a relapse of drinking and substance abuse that ultimately led her to quit her current tour and return to school to finish the final semester her undergraduate degree. This gave her a lot of space and reasons to consider and revise her entire self-concept. That included her faith—which for a long time she’d been determined to reconcile with her queerness—as well as her sense of obligation to be a role model to her audiences on issues of politics and mental health, and her sobriety, which she realized she’d adopted as an objectified identity in itself (she’d thought of it as being straight edge), rather than seeing it as an ongoing process.

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What she found through these questions was that she’d been under the influence of various brands of “purity culture,” derived equally from her church background and the punk scenes she came up in (part of the subject of “Faith Healer” here). To make her recovery less fragile, she needed space to maneuver beyond such false binaries. After a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, she also came to understand that her tendency to fixate on her own ethics and goodness could function as its own addictive, repetitious trap. With her next album, as she told Steven Hyden of Uproxx, “I needed to be like, ‘Hey, people ask me in interviews about being sober, and I spent a whole year day-drinking and blowing up my life, please don’t trust me, please don’t put that on me.’ I wrote all these songs with that kind of urgency to tell everyone I’m a bad person, or that I’m just fallible.”

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All the things Baker’s talked about shaking off correspond to what got in my way on Turn Out the Lights. The stiffness and overdeliberation I heard in the music had to do with her self-consciousness about her public role. The sound of Little Oblivions is, by comparison, that of a young adult throwing away her preconceptions of goodness and badness and, to cite the pioneering writer Adrienne Rich, diving into the wreck. Identity, intimate relationships, the Biblical God, American social divisions, political tribalism, and fixed ideas of musical genre are all jumbled together in these ruins, as things to be seized upon and experimentally reassembled in hopes that some configuration might turn out to be sustainable down the line. These songs go running headlong into their most urgent confusions, resonating with a period in which the world (and America in particular) has had so many of its own presumptions of virtue thrown into complete disarray.

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To longstanding fans who might worry that Baker has sacrificed something about what made her past work special in the process, I would say that Baker is just as heartfelt and unflinchingly honest as she’s always been on Little Oblivions, if not more so because it’s less pious and circuitous. As an artist, Baker may always be earnest, a quality that her generation has reclaimed and recovered from a century of artistic stigmatization as sentimentality. But now it is a noisy, multifaceted earnestness, one that no longer bans dancing—or even simply jumping up and down with abandon when the mood strikes—as either blasphemous or counterrevolutionary. It opens itself up to a range of possible reactions rather than, like Wallace’s “Depressed Person,” demanding some formulaic show of empathy, a syndrome Baker now examines critically, even satirically, on the Little Oblivions track “Favor” (a song about friendship that fittingly features Bridgers and Dacus on backup vocals). And in that spirit, these songs are also less circumspect about the external things of life, the non-metaphorical stuff outside the protagonists’ own heads that might be worth being upset about.

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Because Baker’s disclosures in the press about her personal crises have been so thoughtful and compelling, they’ve understandably been the primary framework for most reactions so far to Little Oblivions. But as a result, many critics have overlooked that the album obviously is a breakup record, in the classic tradition of that subgenre. Substance abuse and self-destruction and identity crisis are all amply present, it’s true, but on more than half of the dozen songs here, those issues are playing themselves out between two (or more) people in the context of a codependent, perhaps even mutually abusive relationship staggering on its last legs. It’s not important whether that part is also directly autobiographical. To some extent, a love song can just be a formal device, a kind of landscape that gives the story someplace to happen and a foil for the protagonist to address. But it’s a side of Little Oblivions that matters for several reasons. In the wake of many of the past decade’s social reckonings, there have been a lot of songs about trauma, gaslighting, and abuse, which is important but can also lean toward the programmatic. In singing about similar cycles in queer relationships that are a lot less culturally scripted, Baker’s handling of the roles of victim and abuser doesn’t invoke quite the same sets of kneejerk assumptions that listeners might have in a heteronormative context. That helps afford her space to pose different, more ambiguous questions than her hetero peers, moving more fluidly among perspectives on where to place blame and where the power lies.

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As Little Oblivions widens Baker’s purview to accept more impure and unsettled moral states, she even flirts with the dynamics of a love affair whose whole purpose can seem to be to have company on a willful one-way descent into Hades because, as she sings on “Hardline,” that’s “just the sort of thing that I enjoy.” It took a while for me to realize that some of her rhetorical moves there reminded me of another album about disastrous romance, the Mountain Goats’ 2002 album Tallahassee: Baker’s line “Start asking for forgiveness in advance/ For all the future things I will destroy,” is almost a direct rewrite of Tallahassee’s “I want to say I’m sorry for stuff I haven’t done yet/ Things will shortly get completely out of hand.”  Then I remembered that a few years ago, Baker was given to covering Tallahassee’s best-known cut, “No Children,” in her live concerts, to Mountain Goats singer-songwriter John Darnielle’s enthusiastic approval. Tallahassee was the culmination of an ongoing song cycle about a codependent pair Darnielle called the Alpha Couple, who chase each other across America in an alcoholic fog of amour fou. It’s a unique meta-breakup album, perhaps the most extensive ever (outside high opera) about romance as Freudian death drive. Little Oblivions indulges some perverse curiosity around that same theme, down to emulating Darnielle’s style of fatally compact epigraphs, like copy from nightmare-world Valentine’s Day cards, such as Baker’s, “If I didn’t have a mean bone in my body/ I’d find some other way to cause you pain.”

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Unlike Baker’s, of course, Darnielle’s version of the technique came with a reflexive Gen-X irony, but in his subsequent albums (notably 2005’s landmark The Sunset Tree) he evolved further in the direction of sincere self-revelation. In these two songwriters’ respective journeys, you can observe from two generational angles artists testing out possible degrees of artistic distance, looking for a balance that offers maximal artistic impact, but maybe some self-protection, too. Any old-school Baker fans who find the fuller band sound of Little Oblivions a barrier to the raw-exposed-nerve experience they cherished might look at it from her perspective, and allow her that sonic buffer for her own well-being (not to mention some company on stage, when touring becomes possible again). Emotional connection in art, as in life, should not require stripping away all defenses and cracking yourself wide open. That way lies the madness of the Alpha Couple, willing to lay waste to everything in the name of true love. Not only is that kind of compulsory “honesty” unhealthy, it becomes a blackmail racket, serving a bigger falsehood. The listener does not automatically deserve everything the artist has to give at every moment. As a recent convert, I say go ahead and lie to me, Julien Baker. Hang icons and graven images all around the temple, put on shiny robes, bring a little spectacle, whatever you want, as long as it’s not the spectacle of your own self-sacrifice. We don’t need another martyr. I prefer my art, and artists, brought back alive.

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