The discourse around Little Oblivions, Julien Baker’s third album, certainly makes it seem like a rebirth. Indeed, with its full-band heft it’s a far cry from the sparse singer-songwriter quasi-folk of her debut Sprained Ankle, a collection of would-be demos by the then-teenage Baker. But for fans of hers, the comparative swell of Little Oblivions should come as no surprise; in retrospect, her sophomore LP Turn Out the Lights was a step in this direction, adding strings and occasionally horns to her usual piano- and guitar-based indie rock. While it contains some of her best songs (“Hurt Less” and “Claws in Your Back” come to mind), its songs were often still too skeletal to hold the weight of all her ideas. Little Oblivions remedies this, and then some.
The spareness of the music behind her voice, on the two previous albums, put an emphasis on her lyrics. They’ve always been a draw of her music; her poignant and honest depictions of alcoholism and depression are gripping enough to stand on their own, and she sings with enough conviction to convert a nonbeliever. While Baker remains an evocative lyricist and a powerful vocalist, the full band adds a whole new dimension to her sound. Baker jokingly warned on Twitter that she’s post-rock now, but there’s some truth to the statement. Nearly every song on the record would still be beautiful without her voice at all, as each builds and swells to give her songs the gravity they’ve always deserved.
Little Oblivions, for the first time in Baker’s catalog, demands attention. That’s made clear from the first second of the record, as heraldic keys introduce Baker’s new sound with uncharacteristic intensity. She’s explained that she wanted to open Little Oblivions with its “most abrasive song” to establish the boundaries of the album, and “Hardline” does so masterfully. It burns with an intensity previously unseen in Baker’s work, building for its first two minutes into a stormy instrumental bridge that wouldn’t sound out of place as the climax of a Caspian track. This newfound expansiveness doesn’t come at the expense of her storytelling, though; when she begins singing again, it’s over simmering drums to punctuate her every word as she asks, “What if it’s all black, baby, all the time?” On the last word her voice soars as the full band comes crashing back in. She’s never been one to shy away from belting in the past, but the guitars that swell with her voice gives the line a backbone her music never had before.
Not that she needs one, of course. She’s proven it before, and it remains true here that Baker can cut just as deep accompanied by only a piano or a guitar. Because the rest of the record is so massive by comparison, “Song in E” (known to diehards as “Mercy”) feels especially intimate; as on previous records, it’s pared back, just her voice and her piano. Even still, it’s brimming with a confidence that feels fresh, even as she delivers some of the most devastating lyrics on the album. “I wish I drank because of you and not only because of me,” she sings at the outset of the song; it closes with another one of her most affecting confessions: “face down in the carpet, I wish you’d hurt me / it’s the mercy I can’t take.”
That it’s followed by the pop-flavored “Repeat” feels like something of an inside joke. Backed by electronic percussion, it’s the opposite end of the spectrum from “Hardline,” demonstrating that Baker can create bright, genuinely redemptive-sounding music just as easily as the heartwrenching and dark material. Melodically, the song recalls “Hurt Less” before its conclusion takes Baker into completely new territory as the jittery drums provide a nearly danceable beat and her voice is swallowed whole by feedback. On “Bloodshot,” too, Baker flirts with pop; like “Repeat,” it follows one of the sparsest songs on the album, “Crying Wolf,” and also like “Repeat,” it’s one of the high points of Little Oblivions. One of the album’s most dynamic tracks, it’s built around an echoing drum beat that gives way to a triumphant piano break midway through before disintegrating into a feedback-laden update on her earlier piano-centric material. Like Baker herself throughout the run of Little Oblivions, though, it builds itself back up into a show stopping final verse adorned with shuffling drums that give it unique feel in her catalog. the 2019 standalone single “Tokyo,” in hindsight, felt like a trial run for “Bloodshot” with its smattering of staggered beats and explosive finale. “Bloodshot” leads into “Ringside,” Baker’s take on a straightforward distorted rock song; it’s the most driving track in her catalog and, with “Hardline,” is conclusive proof that she could be a bona fide rockstar if she wanted. Elsewhere “Heatwave” is a reminder of Baker’s Nashville roots, suggesting that she could just as well be an alt-country star if she chose.
Given Baker’s penchant for skyscraping, swing-for-the-fences closers, “Ziptie” is a surprise. “Go Home” and “Claws in Your Back” are each the emotional climaxes of their respective albums; each ends with her belting out like it’s the last thing she’d ever do, the former in despair and the latter in hope. Ironically, for closing out Baker’s biggest album yet, “Ziptie” is fairly subdued. Its electronic beat ticks like a bomb, but no explosion ever comes. Understated as it is, the song doesn’t rely on a final line belted to the heavens to achieve catharsis; instead, it’s the confidence in Baker’s steady voice that sells it as she delivers one of her most immediately memorable lines: “Good God, when you gonna call it off / Climb down off the cross and change your mind?” The song was inspired by “watching people be restrained by zipties on the news” and wondering why God would waste time with redemption when people are capable of such cruelty. But the answer might be found in Baker’s music itself, in a picture of someone capable of such aching compassion. With the music of someone like Baker in the world, how could redemption ever be in question?