Julien Baker
Little Oblivions


4.5
superb

Review

by Brendan Schroer CONTRIBUTOR (152 Reviews)
March 2nd, 2021 | 126 replies


Release Date: 02/26/2021 | Tracklist

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.



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user ratings (190)
3.7
great
other reviews of this album
Rowan5215 STAFF (4.1)
"I'm tired of washing my hands, god I wanna go home"...



Comments:Add a Comment 
DivergentThinking
Contributing Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


8680 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Yeah, this one’s probably no less hyperbolic than my previous Julien Baker reviews, but I couldn’t help it

Nocte
Staff Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


13964 Comments


that contrib review : ]

DivergentThinking
Contributing Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


8680 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

It’s like we’re back in 2013!

Dewinged
Staff Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


24224 Comments


Outstanding work, Brendan. This one's not an easy one and it reads like you wrote it almost effortlessly.

Mind pos.

Digging: Zao - The Crimson Corridor

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


34829 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5 | Sound Off

nice, nice, nice, here are some notes you didn't ask for (banzai motherfucker):

[redacted]

gen. point, but I think it's interesting that you go into specific detail for the instrumentation but afford the lyrics (surely the core of what JB is about?) comparatively limited focus. haven't spend enough time with these lines to have a gauge on whether this is a good or bad thing, but curious

this album is p good! looking forward to milliondead 1ing it for not having enough harmonics

Digging: Xiu Xiu - OH NO

DivergentThinking
Contributing Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


8680 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thanks guys! And I fixed what you were referring to, Johnny. As for that last thing you said, the reason I mentioned the instrumentation so much is because people have already mentioned her lyrical work countless times. I wanted to explore what was making her evolve OUTSIDE of what she’s normally known for, which in this case was definitely the instrumental work itself. Honestly, the lyrics here are quite similar to the previous albums

Dewinged
Staff Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


24224 Comments


I haven't heard this yet but the singles did emphasize instrumentation over lyrics. I wasn't planning to check this but I am curious now.

SowingSeason
Moderator
March 2nd 2021


37113 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Fantastic review and album.

Digging: Manchester Orchestra - The Million Masks Of God

BlushfulHippocrene
Staff Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


3627 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Nice review, and congrats on the (re)promotion. Couplea contentions/different interpretations:

I've not (thank God) seen anyone argue that TOTL feels less genuine merely because it's less bare than Sprained Ankle. In retrospect, it's not even that less minimal than SA. I do think, but, that TOTL is far more deliberate in its thematic structure, and far more conscious of its audience than SA. It's no less genuine because of it, but it does feel less personal. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing: as a whole, TOTL offers a much healthier way of handling emotional pain, and it's far more narratively cohesive. But, like, its catharsis and broader messaging are because of this more, uh, manufactured...?

What's so incredible about Little Oblivions is that it feels as honest and as personal SA while also advancing Julien's sound far more than TOTL did. TOTL suffers from something like perfectionism, whereas LO feels like Julien throwing caution to the wind and experimenting a bit more. (She could and should've taken this even further, IMO: every song's about a minute too short.) It also unlike TOTL doesn't try to justify the suffering or come to some redemption because of that. It's far more ambivalent--the closer is fucking bleak--but in a way that feels honest and not purely self-flagellating (which SA was).

BlushfulHippocrene
Staff Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


3627 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Would've also loved some more lyrical interpretation from you: so, so, so much interesting stuff here. Like the persistently destructive nature of mercy and forgiveness. Or Julien's increasingly cheeky, uh, agnosticism...? "I don't need a saviour, I need you to take me home" undoes a lot of TOTL in one foul swoop. And "Oh God, when you gonna call it off / Climb down off that cross and change your mind?" Incredible. Very Dave Bazan.

Sunnyvale
Contributing Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


2192 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Great review. As someone who likes but doesn't truly love her previous albums, this album is pretty clearly her best in my view

Yuli
Emeritus
March 2nd 2021


10749 Comments


so many big avatars in dis thread

dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


1553 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Nice review and nice new tag! I’m in the middle of a move and this has been playing basically the entire time. It might be my least favorite Julien so far, which is saying something because it’s still far and away my favorite album from this year. That also might change by the time I’m able to dive into the lyrics. I had been slightly hesitant about her expanding sound, but I think it’s done remarkably well. At points it almost seems to give a post-rock sound. I know sometimes when more somber artists make more bombastic albums it can make the lyrics sound hollow, but I think she’s done it in a way that complements her so well.

And @Blush reading through your comments about the changing references to her faith make me even more excited to do a super deep dive

Crawl
March 2nd 2021


2793 Comments


I am honestly just struggling with this. I like the instrumentation, the lyrics are pretty good and the overall sound is something that should be up my alley, but the song-writing just does absolutely nothing for me and leaves me unengaged. I'll give it a few more listens, though.

Conmaniac
March 2nd 2021


26372 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

"Least fav julien so far"^

4.5 rating

Oh boi I'm hype, I skimmed thru this album and Bloodshot rly stood out to me. Excited for a dedicated listen tho

dedex
Contributing Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


7531 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

aight, great rev



really liking this atm

Digging: Andy Stott - Never the Right Time

YoYoMancuso
Contributing Reviewer
March 2nd 2021


13792 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5 | Sound Off

great review man, Julien isn't really my thing but this is very well written

Digging: My Bloody Valentine - m b v

Cormano
March 2nd 2021


2637 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I find it hard to describe how good and adictive the closer is



"Very Dave Bazan."

dude totally



also surprised no one has mentioned any Frightened Rabbit similarities

I think in time I'll review this, fucking incredible record

Cormano
March 2nd 2021


2637 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

friendship ended with Explosions in the Sky



now Julien Baker is my favorite post rock band

LeddSledd
March 2nd 2021


4741 Comments


wot's this then

Digging: Immolation - Close to a World Below



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