It's been over five years since Julien Baker first captured music critics' attention with her 2015 debut album, Sprained Ankle. Sparse instrumentation scattered around Baker's delicate voice in her first LP: Her existential musings were so lonely and fragile that the only way to listen without shattering her words was to hold your breath. Now, with a few more albums under her belt—including one with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Daucus in the indie supergroup boygenius—Baker returns to themes of faith, self–destructive behavior, and substance abuse in her third album, Little Oblivions.
Despite the album title's emptiness, Little Oblivions features surprisingly lush instrumental accompaniment throughout its 12 songs, sporting a full, indie–rock sound. Baker has slowly opened up to the idea of not being alone in her music, a change from the more isolated vocals in her earlier discography. Her sophomore album, Turn Out The Lights, tentatively featured a few more accompanying instruments than its predecessor; Little Oblivions boasts a full–bodied band sound.
Baker, the only producer on Little Oblivions, is hyper–aware to the point of terrifying realization. In "Bloodshot," Baker stares at her lover to rhythmic drum beats, eyes red from intoxication, realizing that they're both just projecting what they need the other to be. Illusion crashes down with percussion, as Baker registers that her partner isn't the idea of someone she desperately needs, but rather a complex and messy individual who is guilty of doing the same thing to her. As Baker puts it, "Bloodshot" is a moment of realization that "We're each just kind of sculpting our own mythologies about the world, crafting our narratives."
Little Oblivions often ignores this distinction between real and perceived, even though it's always painfully present. In “Hardline,” instruments are staggered in a crescendo until falling quiet when Baker sings, “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,” a nod to her battle with substance abuse. Baker has chronicled her journey to sobriety in all three of her albums, but, like the others, Little Oblivions doesn't offer a neatly–packaged resolution. Given the deeply personal nature of addiction and the monetization of artists' sobriety stories, Baker has explained, "I don't want to construct a narrative of this sort of oscillating prodigal redemption."
Still, Baker recognizes the potential importance of speaking about her experiences in a way that doesn't fall into a romanticized narrative. The harmonies in “Faith Healer” are almost angelic as Baker yearns for a dangerous high, waiting for a healer to ease the pain of withdrawal. Baker struggles with her immediate need to feel better and the unbearable realization that instant gratification remains out of her reach. Faith healing in Christianity has been explored as a possible psychological “placebo effect,” and Baker acknowledges this between luxuriant instrumental breaks.
Growing up in a highly religious Christian family, Baker is well aware that faith healing, a quick and miraculous fix, exists in the realm of impossibility—but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t care to differentiate between feeling better and getting better as she closes the song, Baker's clear voice reaches higher and higher until she implores, “Faith healer, come put your hands on me / A snake oil dealer / I’ll believe you if you make me feel something.”
In Little Oblivions, Baker launches listeners into a liminal space of existential crises, where the unknown transforms into a manifestation of our worst fears. If the distinction between real and fake no longer matters, what does? The turmoil within Baker's third album is sweeping and all–engulfing—and it's chilling. Apathetic harmonies admit, "I won't bother telling you I'm sorry / For something that I'm gonna do again." She asks, with startling intensity, "So Jesus, can you help me now? / Trade me in for a briar crown / Is there anybody coming back for me? / If they ever were, they are not now." Baker demands answers no one can provide, and it's unclear whether or not she would even listen for a response.
Baker is still learning in Little Oblivions, exploring the abstract through her lyrics and the actual through her new full–band sound. It's a deeply philosophical album, one that doesn't quite understand itself yet, but is beautiful regardless. Listening to the lightness of the folk intro in "Heatwave," it's almost possible to miss the dark lyrics that follow. Little Oblivions is easy to get lost in—part of its dangerous appeal—and constantly raises questions that are uncomfortable to ask. By the end of it, reality seems more susceptible to manipulation, and concrete concepts no longer seem so set in stone. Baker engages in solipsism without the extreme egocentrism: She is the only thing she can be sure of, but it's not by choice.