Review Summary: By broadening her influences and sonic palette, Julien Baker delivers a truly superb indie rock experience.
For years now, Julien Baker’s work has been dogged by one particularly unfair criticism: that abandoning her more stripped-down sound has made her somehow less authentic and personal. On the surface this is pretty amusing, considering Baker was already part of an indie rock band like Forrister before she even released the minimalistic Sprained Ankle
. But to expect people to abide by the same sonic template for their entire career is ridiculous, no matter how good they are at that sound. In fact, I’d argue that Baker’s stylistic progression has been nothing short of completely logical. It’s not that she’s changed, but rather the musical framework around her has.
The same confessional emo-tinged lyrics of Baker’s previous work are still the emotional pillar of Little Oblivions
. But the humble, almost hesitant voice that delivers them is made more dynamic by the fantastic full-band instrumentation that surrounds it. The record walks a fine line between a depressive atmosphere and a strange sort of catharsis, and that’s because of the way this music ebbs and flows at the right times. Hearing Baker sing about being “blacked out on a weekday” on the very first line of “Hardline,” you’d expect the mildly uplifting major-key melody to be cancelled out by the sullen lyrics... but it doesn’t. This soon becomes a theme of the album too; “Faith Healer” sports a beautiful clean guitar melody with the same rhythm as her 2015 song “Something,” and the triumphant march of its drumbeat seems unfazed by even Baker’s own vocals. Similarly, “Ringside” strides along steadily as clean and distorted guitar tones clash with each other for a soaring climax. It’s utterly luminous, to the point that Baker herself doesn’t even have to sing over this section because it speaks for itself.
Make no mistake, however; this is still a Julien Baker album at its core. Perhaps the greatest callback to her Sprained Ankle
days is the lovely piano ballad “Song in E,” which plays out like a sort of dark alcoholic hymn with themes of both failure and mercy. “Crying Wolf” might just be one of the bleakest tracks on offer, however, explicitly dealing with overdosing and forcing “the charcoal down my throat” to counteract it. The piano-led melodies are similarly somber. As you could probably pick up by now, a huge advantage of Little Oblivions
is its variety, not just emotionally but musically. There are shades of alternative, indie, shoegaze, folk, post-rock, emo, soft rock, and just about everything in between to make this an all-encompassing affair. Even more impressive? The fact that Baker herself played almost every instrument, further adding her own stamp to the experience. This is especially crucial to songs like “Ringside” and “Highlight Reel,” in which she uses her keen understanding of dynamics to drive them to an explosive finish after waves of anxious buildup.
With each passing solo record and collaboration project, it always seemed like Julien Baker was aspiring to reach a more confident take on her signature style. Sprained Ankle
was an intimate and emotionally draining first step; Turn Out the Lights
started to show a more dynamic sound from Baker while still retaining the core of her appeal: the raw emotion and uncompromising poetry. And now with Little Oblivions
, it seems as though she’s finally taken that big step towards fully expanding her palette and finding completely new ways to wring out those familiar emotions. And as an experience, this album is the equivalent of being at peace with your inner demons and accepting their presence... all while realizing you can bury them if you’re determined enough.