Album Review: Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

Indie Rock | Alternative

77%


For fans of Julien Baker’s previous work, Little Oblivions feels different and surprising in a number of ways. Right from the first few seconds of the opening track ‘Hardline’, with its lush vintage hum of Mellotron, it feels like a very different experience. While Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights were in part defined by their sparse and airy folk arrangements, this latest record sees Julien expanding her sound. Forgoing the austere expanse of notes falling like raindrops where she made her name, Little Oblivions dabbles instead in lush dream pop soundscapes. Whether it’s the bittersweet neon-lit sprawl of ‘Relative Fiction’, the echoing guitar solo in the latter half of ‘Crying Wolf’, or the brief sci-fi synth interlude a minute into on ‘Heatwave’, Julien seems to constantly push herself out of her comfort zone to embrace a more eclectic sound. Even the album’s quietest moments, like the music box piano balladry of ‘Song in E’, feel more detailed and considered. Despite all the new tricks this album pulls, with every moment it stills feels like a Julien Baker record, thanks in no small part to the fact that she played nearly all the instrumentation herself.

However, this latest release also sets itself apart with its lack of immediacy. The fragility and starkness of those first two albums made them instantly enrapturing, whereas Little Oblivions takes a few listens in order to get the full measure of it. While that’s not a problem in itself, the cause behind it certainly is. Poor production really holds this album back from making the impact that it should. The muddy mix on the lower end is by far the worst part, with nigh on every drum beat falling flat, but the problems aren’t limited there. The record lacks dynamics at times, with every part blending together in a big wall of noise that drowns out Julien’s vocals, and sometimes tracks feels so dulled and muted that it’s like you’re listening to the album from the next room. If these production quirks were part of a stylistic choice, then it’s one that plays against the album’s strengths. I really like a lot of the instrumental choices made here and so it’s a shame that they’re not presented a bit crisper and clearer. Especially as the vocals here aren’t quite as striking as I’ve come to expect. The vocals aren’t quite as delicate, which I suppose is probably for the best as then they’d be even more buried in the mix, but neither do we hear any hints of the fire and passion she brought to her work with boygenius on tracks like ‘Salt in the Wound’. 

Thankfully though, some things never change, and Julien’s lyricism remains just as compelling and cathartic as ever. Her opening verse of ‘Highlight Reel’ for instance (Passed out in the back of a cab/Could you pull over? I think that I’m trapped/Caught underwater, I beat on the glass/Gnawing my arm at the shoulder/Would you help me get out?) is one of the best descriptions I’ve heard, in song or otherwise, for how a panic attacks really feels. Once again her work tackles recurring themes of faith and addiction, with the latter in particular being a keystone of the record as she candidly opens up about her past experiences relapsing. It gets examined from all sides: the draw of those titular “little oblivions”, as a means of escape, the sense of defeat and disappointment at slipping up, and most interestingly looking at the effect it has on those closest to us.

That line from ‘Bloodshot’ that we see scrawled across the cover, “There’s no glory in love, Only the gore of our hearts” almost feels like a unifying theme for the album. That feeling of letting someone in, of letting them see your darker side and your deepest flaws, and them loving you just the same, but knowing that means they’ll only get hurt all the more. That terrifying Catch 22 of feeling like a dead weight holding them down, feeling unworthy of second chances, but afraid to let go and be left alone and adrift. There’s a real maturity in this record’s self-awareness and reflection; an unflinching look into the darkest recesses that never fully succumbs to the darkness. She examines the worst in herself in a way that feels far more like healing than defeatism, and that kind of unfettered openness can’t be praised highly enough. 

Frustratingly this is a release that feels a stone’s throw from greatness, but which failed to iron out all the kinks. Viewed on its own I struggle to connect with it the way I’d like to, even after giving myself the time to dig deeper beyond its flaws. Looking at it as an intermediate stage however I can certainly appreciate it as an important stepping stone for a supremely talented songwriter.