Review Summary: "I'm tired of washing my hands, god I wanna go home"
When Julien Baker wrote those words in 2015, the world was less on fire. There were still problems stacked high, of course, but we weren't staring daily into an abyss of isolation and hand-washing and surface-scrubbing just to stay alive. Julien Baker wrote a line about her own life – likely, the OCD she suffers from, which she's recently spoken about as being linked to her experiences growing up queer in the religious South – and five years later the words rang out across our scared new world, taking on crushing new meaning. This is the way of Julien Baker, taking the most personal pain and putting it into words that resonate within your skull.
Don't worry, this isn't the part where I claim Little Oblivions
as the ultimate pandemic album or whatever - this music is too close to the bone to be reduced to a simple lockdown lament. Baker has always written in the language of violence, filling her songs with bloody knuckles, black eyes and skin scraped over concrete, and Little Oblivions
pushes this vocabulary well into the realm of discomfort. "Hardline" and "Heatwave" describe violence against oneself in the plainest terms possible, offering up a lyric like "I'll wrap Orion's Belt around my neck and kick the chair out" with a stunning straightforwardness; later, "Ringside" turns the same self-directed pain into a spectator sport, with an apology for anyone who has to witness it. This is dark, dark shit: even Turn Out the Lights
' "Even", painfully raw about the abuse it described, didn't reach the levels of harshness that Little Oblivions
deals out casually, though never carelessly.
Like the recording studio is the inside of her head and the songs are echoing thoughts, Baker captures these fleeting moments and fills them almost entirely with the sound of herself, playing every instrument. Even more appropriately, her brief contact with the outside world comes in the form of Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers' harmonising on "Favor", a ghost signal picked up on an AM radio; for the rest of Little Oblivions
' 40ish minutes, we're on a guided tour of the complex, multi-faceted mind of Julien Baker. Everything - from the more fragmented and internalised songwriting, to the chaotically detailed production - seems to serve this idea, from what seems to be an aural interpretation of a digital-age panic attack in the last minute of "Repeat", to the earth-shaking hugeness of "Hardline" and "Bloodshot", where Baker wails the climactic line of the album accompanied by a cacophony of drums clattering left and right across the stereo image. Ambient textures, detuned guitars, glitchy vocals and clamouring percussion pop up all throughout the album, like intrusive thoughts bursting in. Admittedly, all this texture starts to wear thin on the cluttered "Highlight Reel", a song which just repeats the finest moments of the preceding songs again to underwhelming effect.
This is the kind of album you make eye-to-eye with the abyss, much like the one we've all been staring into for a year or more, except the apocalypse on Little Oblivions
is plainly internal. Until the very end, that is, where closer "Ziptie" edges over the disturbingly blurred line between personal and political crises. With a title evoking the restraints placed on protesters on the nightly news and lyrics which calmly but angrily accuse those who still stand in the way of change - "when you gonna call it off? come down off the cross and change your mind?" - it's both a significant progression for Julien Baker, and the natural endpoint to an album which embraces fractured stream-of-consciousness over the tidier narratives of Turn Out the Lights
. Baker hasn't reinvented the wheel with her songwriting, and nor should she; her songs are still spacious and solitary, placing emphasis on her devastating lyrics and knack of finding the right melodies to deliver them. But on Little Oblivions
, she's taken the spaces in her music that used to be empty and filled them with churning, beautiful noise.
If all that sounds like a mess, be assured it's a deliberate one. There's certainly a reason why, of all the standout lyrics from the album, that massive line from "Bloodshot" is the one scrawled across the album art in the artist's handwriting: "there's no glory in love, only the gore of our hearts". It's not comforting to imagine the kind of tragedies we might have to live through before Little Oblivions
rings out with the clarity and power of her early work, but god knows Julien Baker will be adept as ever at having exactly the right words to assure us we're not alone.