On Feb. 26, Tennessee singer-songwriter Julien Baker released her much-anticipated third studio album “Little Oblivions.” It’s an ambitious release, in which she branches out from her country and alt-folk roots to make an indie rock LP with heavy 90s post-rock influence.
While the album still features many Baker staples, such as memorable acoustic guitar melodies and bleak lyrics, the record showcases not only her willingness to experiment with her sound, but also that she has the technical prowess to take on what’s ultimately a bigger, louder and more dramatic project.
With every track written entirely by Baker, the album is very much grounded in a specific style. Taking cues from genres such as shoegaze, slowcore, bluegrass and post rock, many of the songs are downtempo rock tracks, aside from the piano ballad “Song in E.”
Most of the tracks grow massively over the course of their runtime, a la Radiohead’s “Ok Computer,” a record rife with grand crescendos. Many records that use such a structure over and over can occasionally grow grating, repetitive or even tiring, and while that’s sometimes true on “Little Oblivions,” Baker mostly manages to avoid this through constant employment of a Pixies-esque loud-quiet-loud philosophy in her songwriting.
Each song’s growth isn’t as simple as “add more instruments then end the song” — rather, Baker frequently adds or removes sounds almost arbitrarily. The result is a record that has few songs with simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus structures, and individual songs where you can’t really predict what’ll come next. While there are a few songs that can be a little forgettable or repetitive, most of the time she immediately makes listeners regret any judgement by adding several new melodies and instruments to keep them on their toes.
Looking away from song structure, listeners will find that on this album Baker’s lyrics are yet again dark, angsty, dramatic and occasionally sarcastic. Utilizing unique metaphors and clever turns of phrase, Baker covers themes and topics such as death, drug abuse, escapism, mental health, guilt and regret. It features lyrics like “I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck / And kick the chair out” (“Heatwave”) and “How long do I have until / I’ve spent up everyone’s goodwill?” (“Favor”).
It’s not an easy listen by any means, but lines like these never become too much for the song. The music always either intensifies to match the emotions, or softens to highlight a particular lyric. It’s a bitter, depressing project which makes you feel every ounce of Baker’s pain, frustration and self-hatred, but the maturity and artistry with which the songs are written never make the emotional hits on the record feel self-aggrandizing or unearned.
After listening to the album, I assumed that since she was employing such a maximalist sound, Baker was working with another producer. However, just like her last record, it’s all self-produced; and for that matter, most of the instruments are played by Baker herself.
There’s no reason that these songs should work from a production standpoint. They’ll go from a simple keyboard melody and maybe a kick to five different guitar tracks, a complicated bass-line, several different synths and herculean drums. Somehow, every single instrument is given ample room to breathe, and every melody is written to play off each other incredibly well. Additionally, the guitar and bass tones are one of the very best things about the record, featuring light yet raw distortion. Almost every instrument can be picked out on the mix, and if not, the tracks are blending together beautifully.
In terms of the performances, there’s almost nothing to criticize. If I had to nitpick, Baker’s piano playing feels at times uninspired and rudimentary, and a few of the guitar riffs throughout the LP get overly repetitive. But the pros undoubtedly outweigh the cons, whether it’s the unique synth sounds, the catchy drum programming (I believe that the album uses the same two or three electronic drum kits, but I could be mistaken), the impressive guitar playing and of course, Baker’s distinct, haunting and beautiful vocals.
The record’s significant dynamic range, excellent performances and bold production all combine to create an affecting and cinematic sonic landscape.
I’d like to take this quick opportunity to look at a few standout tracks. “Hardline” is an excellent opener, beginning with blaring strings and a quasi-Rhodes organ. Baker then starts singing what she calls a “confession booth song” about bad habits and depression. The sad chord progression marches on as guitars, bass and drums come crashing in. It’s a tragic song that sets up the rest of the record perfectly.
“Bloodshot” features a frantic drum track around which several dreamy guitars build. It tells of two people with substance abuse issues stuck in an incredibly flawed relationship, and features one of the standout lyrics of the record, part of which is displayed on the cover art: “There’s no glory in love/Only the gore of our hearts/So let it come for my throat/Take me and tear me apart.”
“Favor” is one of the more uptempo songs on the record, built mostly around piano, acoustic guitar and a catchy drum part. Baker, along with her Boygenius bandmates Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, sing about processing the guilt she feels regarding a dark time in her life. If any song is going to become a hit, it’ll almost certainly be this one.
On “Little Oblivions,” Baker takes plenty of risks and pushes herself out of her comfort zone on an indie rock effort that features a fuller sound than her previous records. The album’s consistent songwriting, bleak and mature lyrics as well as incredible production all complement each other to create Baker’s most complete project which combines her emo and folk roots with ’90s indie staples.
While not perfect, most of the flaws I could find with this record are nitpicks. It’s an incredibly emotional listen and demands your full attention, but you’ll be rewarded with a memorable indie rock album in an era where most innovation is coming from rappers and pop musicians.
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