After spending the second half of 2019 finishing college at Middle Tennessee State University, Julien Baker has finally returned with her third album, Little Oblivions. Her 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, had a sense of privacy, just her on guitar. She opened up her sound on Turn the Lights Out; the songwriting was grander, this time led by piano. Little Oblivions is her most expansive and poppiest record yet, and her first with a full band. In fact, Little Oblivions is her first album with drums. Though this new arrangement doesn’t go as far as tapping into her punk roots, it does satisfy her recent nostalgia for the energy of playing heavier music.
Between lectures, assignments, and exams that offered her a reprieve from life as a songwriter, Baker found much time to reflect on her ego. This included her personal expectations, the narratives we construct for ourselves, and her identity as a sober person. She is cautiously vague about her current relationship with sobriety, but like in her past work, she touches upon it on Little Oblivions. She preemptively asks for forgiveness on the slowly swelling “Hardline”: “Start asking for forgiveness in advance / For all the future things I will destroy.”
Wrenching ballads like “Crying Wolf” are Little Oblivions’ best songs. It’s spacious yet powerful, never overwrought with histrionics. The soaring “Bloodshot” follows “Crying Wolf,” making for a breathtaking combo of songs. They’re far cries from the skeletal piano chords that haunt Sprained Ankle closer “Go Home,” but Little Oblivion has an answer to that in “Song in E,” She’s played “Song in E” live since 2018. Back then, though, fans knew it as “Mercy.” It, too, deals with the dark side of substance use. “When you heard my name / You could be angry and have a good reason to be / Then when I say a horrible drunken parade of my worst thoughts / I say “Give me no sympathy” / It’s the mercy I can’t take.” Baker’s heartfelt vocal performance on “Song in E” is the centrepiece of the song. It’s also the greatest showing of her voice on the album, if not in all her work.
Throughout the album, melancholic chords loom before fading like mist in the night sky, like on “Ziptie.” On songs like “Repeat,” electronic percussion skips like rocks across a pond, as do the drum fills on “Hardline.” These nuanced sonic touches are definite highlights. And speaking of subtle highlights, “Favor” features backup vocals by both of Baker’s bandmates in boygenius, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus.
“Nobody deserves a second chance / But honey, I keep getting them,” Baker sings on the repentant “Ringside.” This cloud-parting song can bring to your knees when she asks, “So, Jesus, can you help me now?” Whether or not Julien Baker deserves another chance, Little Oblivions shows she made the right call by stepping away to focus on herself and coming back stronger and more surefooted than before.