Despite lacking the mainstream fanfare that surrounded more recent releases in the genre, Julien Baker has created the magnum opus of the indie-folk singer-songwriter moment with Little Oblivions. Characterized by her trademark dynamic vocals and incisive lyricism, adding interesting production and larger instrumentation, Little Oblivions tells tales of relapse and self-loathing, and the cycle that they perpetuate.
The opener, “Hardline”, begins to lay out the themes that the record explores, primarily the depression and feelings of worthlessness that categorized her alcoholism. From there, “Faith Healer” begins to give us the reasons as to why she relapses, describing the “startling intensity … the sting” which everything she experiences is tainted with, and how she dulled it with alcohol. “Song in E”, the brutal denouement of the album, echoes this, telling us how her self-hatred drives her substance abuse, how her inability to feel deserving of love or mercy hurts more than simply being hated would. As one of the quieter moments on the album, the simple piano line accentuates the power of the song and contrasts it with the lush arrangements and occasional electronic production that characterize the rest of the album. Afterwards, the album never really reaches any emotion as potent, but the comedown is still a good one, and the album ends well despite this.
Her previous records, 2015’s Sprained Ankle and 2017’s Turn Out the Lights, were both much more minimal albums, focusing on the power of Baker’s voice and songwriting, but the pivot towards more instrumentation is a smart one, giving the album a better pace and distinguishing her sound from that of other similar artists. The organ chord that blasts through the first few moments of the album sets this tone, and the various instruments, synths, and drum machines that populate the rest accentuate, rather than mask the talent on display. Favor, with backing vocals from Boygenius collaborators Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus shows just how much Baker’s style has changed since the release of their 2018 self-titled EP.
All her failures are on display here, the falls-from-grace as destructive and spectacular as the instrumental aesthetic, and yet the album doesn’t feel wholly depressing. The experience is a cathartic one, and her struggles are framed in such a human way that even those who haven’t experienced her particular kind of misery can relate. One might not know the feeling of falling off the wagon, but letting down those close to one and not knowing how to pick oneself back up is a pretty much universal constant. The most biting lyrics of her career, combined with some of the most dynamic and interesting production on any indie-folk record in a long time combine to make an incredibly cohesive record, one that sticks with you long after its runtime has elapsed.