Album Review: Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

In her third album, Little Oblivions, Julien Baker paints a bloodshot self-portrait and invites her listeners to stare straight into its eyes. Unflinching and brutally autobiographical, the twelve songs explore the 25 year-old songwriter’s battles with addiction and mental illness. Entirely self-produced, the album signifies a departure from the Memphis artist and boygenius member’s past stripped-back work and into a far more dramatic realm.

Tied together with a cohesive storyline and sonic palette, the songs blend together seamlessly, only minor details setting them apart from one another. Fans of boygenius will be delighted by “Favor,” which features Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers on backing vocals. And while the hook-filled tracks like “Hardline” and “Ringside” hit the listener with heavy-hitting drums and electric guitar riffs, “Song in E” offers a more delicate ballad, albeit equally heartbreaking. Although the tracks do generally follow a similar structure, Baker’s distinctive production style saves them from teetering into melodic predictability.

Mixing synths and drum machines with mandolin and banjo, Baker creates a soundscape of psychological turbulence, complete with verbed-out guitar distortions that echo like ghosts through a cacophony of industrial soundbites. Perhaps the most striking production choice is the stark contrast of Baker’s raw vocals against the gritty sonic backdrop, cutting through the noise as if surfacing from underwater.

Above all, Julien Baker is a lyricist, and one of the best in the indie rock scene right now. Crafting every line with brushstroke-like precision, Baker depicts the damaging effects addiction has on relationships with an alarming level of detail. Dark and disarming, her imagery cuts straight to the nerve:

Start asking for forgiveness in advance for all the future things I will destroy.
That way I can ruin everything, and when I do, you don’t get to act surprised.
When it finally gets to be too much, I always told you, you could leave at any time.
Until then I’ll split the difference between medicine and poison.
Take what I can get away with while it burns right through my stomach.

At its heart, the album explores the shame of addiction and trauma, and how it eats away at the love between two people. Although the album is not the most uplifting, Baker’s unapologetic candor offers a kind of solace in catharsis that speaks not only to her experience, but to the experience that so many face when navigating addiction in their own life or in the life of a loved one. Little Oblivions outlines the painful process of self-examination, not in pursuit of answers, but rather, a deeper sense of understanding.

Gemma Laurence

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