By Jonah Krueger, News Editor
Key tracks: “Heatwave”, “Ringside”, “Song in E”
Perhaps it’s wrong to start this review with a joke; Julien Baker’s latest effort deserves to be taken seriously. Yet, with the dark places this album takes the listener, maybe a little levity is in order.
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It’s been four years since Baker has graced fans with a full-length project, though those years were far from silent. In addition to several singles and the excellent boygenius EP, Baker is an unlikely powerhouse of live performance. A festival gimme of a performer, her true strength is undeniably in close quarters, with the audience leaning in close to hear her strained voice and lonesome guitar.
Surprisingly, Little Oblivions serves as somewhat of a departure from her usual signifiers. While her previous efforts used understated instrumentation—often just guitar, vocals and droning pianos—to great effect, Little Oblivions explodes with meticulous synths and upfront rhythm sections. The result places a greater emphasis on the dynamics of Baker’s songwriting, allowing the instrumentals to swell as she moves from a whisper to a scream. In short, it’s her best project yet.
Take the opener, “Hardline”. Once past the first three seconds, which might bring to mind memories of rapper-inspired happy meals, the track showcases her new knack for finding a perfect, complimentary timbre with the aforementioned organ chords that are layered over low strings and ambient synths. As Baker poetically depicts a self-destructive life, the song builds to an instrumental climax that cathartically utilizes booming drums, high-action key hits and a looming melody.
The following track, “Heatwave”, employs similar tricks, this time offering a jaunting groove and a sardonic, sci-fi-ish synth lead. Later on, “Ringside” goes full dirge with a front-and-center bass line and driving cymbal hits. Moments like these are what set Little Oblivions apart from its predecessors. The album is able to reach higher highs, allowing her more stripped-back songs, such as “Song in E” or “Crying Wolf”, to deal more potent devastation.
Baker accomplishes all of this growth without sacrificing what initially brought her attention in 2015: her unflinching lyricism. The power of Baker’s verse has never been in question, and fortunately, her streak continues. Tales of imperfections and crushing anxiety (“The smoke alarm has been going off for weeks / No one showed up”), nuanced emotional states of anger and love (“I wish you’d hurt me / It’s the mercy I can’t take”) and even kafkaesque critiques of capitalism (“I had the shuttering thought / ‘This was gonna make me late for work’”) all find time to shine over the album’s 43 minutes.
Yet, despite the successfully realized ambition, despite the moments of unmatched beauty and despite the lack of any real misses in the tracklist, once the album lets its last chord ring out, there’s an inescapable feeling that the best is yet to come. Towards the middle of the tracklist, a slight sense of redundancy seeps in. Couplets or refrains that were so integral just a few songs ago vanish in the muddy waters of sameness. Not a single one of the album’s 12 tracks are unenjoyable, but when played front-to-back, the impact of the individual tracks diminishes.
Less a detriment to Little Oblivions and more a hopeful statement for Baker’s future, the record seems to hint that even grander statements lie a little further down Baker’s artistic path. Even if it is not quite her magnum opus, Little Oblivions is sure to satisfy fans and may even convert naysayers of Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights. Coming up on nearly a decade of indie stardom, Julien Baker continues to barrel on at full speed.