When you have released two well regarded albums and you need inspiration for your third, what do you? Julien Baker went back to school. Not the most promising start, you might think, but her songs have always been deeply personal affairs. During her time learning, combined with two years away from touring (not to mention a few personal hiccups in between), she found enough inspiration to create ‘Little Oblivions’. And inspired it is. For this outing, Baker has approached her songwriting from a slightly different direction – she’s still mining her soul, but the presentation has changed markedly. This is a new Baker; an inventive, approachable siren, longing to ensnare your emotions and, if you let it, ‘Little Oblivions’ will easily sweep you off your feet.
Baker’s songs have always been as much about space as sound. This was particularly noticeable on her first album ‘Sprained Ankle’, which used sparse guitar sounds to really enhance the fragility of her voice. Combined with the deeply personal lyricism, it made for quite a potent brew. In fact, it was so raw and personal, repeating its formula would not have been easy, or even desirable. Instead, her second album ‘Turn Out The Lights’ used a wider a palette, adding piano to her repertoire while retaining the sparse frailty. At times she sounded haunted, but this set of songs did not depend on confession in quite the same way. It brought her to a bigger audience but after its release, she continued to expand her sound. First playing as part of a supergroup with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus to create the ‘Boy Genius’ EP, then last year releasing the ‘Tokyo’ single. Both turn out to have been stepping stones into ‘Little Oblivions’. From the opening notes, you’ll notice a further evolution. Baker’s trademark fragility is scaffolded by a richer musical structure, making for a bolder and more arresting sound. So while she is still spilling her heart, she sounds wide-eyed and confident, allowing the emotional content to soar.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing Baker’s live shows, you’ll understand how her sound works. If you haven’t, she essentially plays solo, using guitar loops to create a magical canvas over which to sing. This album takes this idea, fleshes it out and takes it to its zenith. Baker played almost all the instruments on the album and on songs like ‘Bloodshot’ manages to weaves a complex and intricate web. However, the most notable change here is the addition of drums and loops. It is flirting with pop music and the genre’s influence can be felt throughout, especially on ‘Faith Healer’ where she allows her voice to be briefly wrapped up in vocal processing, an approach she also dips into on ‘Repeat’. You might recoil in horror at the thought as her whole sound is based on the fragility of her voice, but it’s tasteful and used in such a careful way you can’t help but smile. In fact, that is why it works so well – these elements are never gratuitous, adding a few pop stylings to a song is never all she has done. It’s more like each song was a black and white sketch that she has carefully shaded using coloured pencils. This enhances the flavours but never lets the song be overwhelmed by ideas, making each a delicate work of art.
Both of Baker’s previous albums were patient and slow, using a glacial energy to carve their way into your heart. This time the pace is higher and the album never sags or meanders. Of course the drum beats help, giving songs like ‘Hardline’ a sense of momentum, but the style is also important. For example, ‘Relative Fiction’ is a country song filtered through Baker’s perspective while ‘Heatwave’ uses rapidly strummed guitar to feel bigger and more uplifting than anything she has released before.
Even though this is a forward-thinking album in many ways, the aptly named ‘Highlight Reel’ plays like a greatest hits compilation of her previous work. Revisiting sounds, updating them, and presenting them in a way that sits comfortably within her newer approach. Similarly, ‘Song In E’ is as delicate as anything in her back catalogue yet is enhanced by the more complex arrangements sitting around it. Of course, Baker’s personality is reflected in the lyrics. On the boldest song, ‘Ringside’, she literally asks Jesus to come and help. You can’t really avoid the religious aspect of her lyrics, but it works as a metaphor for almost anything and doesn’t undermine the heartache in her words. After all, anyone can ask for help.
Lessons learned during her time away from the music scene have only enhanced Julien Baker’s return. Cool, calm and creative, ‘Little Oblivions’ is her most accessible record and, arguably, her best to date. The broader base and richer soundscapes manage to redefine her sound without compromising its magic. Poignant and personal, it is presented in such a way that you can’t help but feel uplifted. It’s hard not to be swept away by the album’s confident majesty, making it not just beautiful, but essential.