Published Feb 22, 2021Here's the type of record that can propel an artist from indie acclaim to widespread recognition. After two critically lauded albums of raw, powerful alt-folk — as well as a rapturously received collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus as boygenius — Memphis-based singer-songwriter Julien Baker has burst forth with a third effort that's so fully formed and viscerally human, it might as well have its own pulse.
Known for making music out of little more than a strong, crackling voice, the reverberations of an electric guitar and the most intimate moments of confession and self-reflection, Baker has now embraced a full-band sound that fills in the spaces where previously there were only breaths, cracks, creaks and palpable tension. The arrangements include drums, bass, synthesizers, piano, banjo and mandolin, with nearly all of it performed by Baker. It's a natural yet nonetheless daring next step for an artist of her kind, and she makes the transition marvellously.
Little Oblivions brings Julien Baker into full bloom. The bare-skinned vulnerability is still here even with bigger, fuller arrangements. You can make reasonably adequate comparisons to big-budget indie rock like Florence + the Machine, the National and Arcade Fire (all of whom have worked with Craig Silvey, who mixed Little Oblivions and Baker's 2017 record, Turn Out the Lights), and you could also liken some of the album's style to Now, Now and Sharon Van Etten. But Baker has developed a distinctive enough voice — and has maintained it even as her public identity has gotten wrapped up in boygenius, whose other members also happen to appear here on "Favor" — that it remains singular, even surrounded with more elaborate instrumentation. These songs would be just as impactful as solo performances, just as earlier songs like "Turn Out the Lights" and "Rejoice" would thrive with full-band arrangements. The expressiveness, desperation and dynamic range of Baker's voice will still stop you in your tracks. "I can see where this is going, but I can't find the brake," she sings so powerfully in "Hardline," coming to the first of several big crescendos.
The truth is that Baker's music will hit hard no matter how it's played. She's one of those songwriters who can dig into the deepest, darkest pit of your heart, whether you're the type of person who struggles to feel or the type who feels too much, too intensely. No one who's listening to her songs has experienced exactly what she's experienced, but everyone who's listening to her songs has felt how she's felt. They just might need someone to put it into the right words — and that's one of Baker's great strengths.
"I'll believe you if you make me feel something," Baker sings in "Faith Healer," a rousing, uptempo highlight of the record. "I wish that I drank because of you and not only because of me," she croons in "Song in E," a stirring piano ballad that calls back to her Sprained Ankle days. "Beat myself until I'm bloody, and I'll give you a ringside seat," she declares in "Ringside," before the rhythm section comes in like a knockout punch. "When the drugs wear off, will the love kick in?" she inquires in "Repeat," one of her most uncharacteristically hopeful-sounding songs. And from "Hardline," again: "Start asking for forgiveness in advance for all the future things I will destroy."
Listening to Baker's previous albums sometimes felt like an intrusion into her most private moments. The content here is just as deeply personal — unflinching looks at depression, critical confrontations with violence, rigorous examinations of addiction and sobriety, and shaky-voiced pleas to God — but she makes you feel more welcome than ever to share in her process of angst and self-discovery. The album's bigger, fuller sound brings Baker's melodies to new heights and casts her gaze out more broadly, making Little Oblivions a far less gruellingly stark and isolating experience. It just so happens, as well, to arrive at a time when the majority of our interactions and dialogues are not with each other, but with ourselves. Little Oblivions is generous and giving; it's not only a public display of personal catharsis, but also an act of collective commiseration and an invitation to heal. (Matador)