It’s overwhelming to think of how much the world has changed since Julien Baker’s sophomore record Turn Out The Lights. Starting out tied to the contemporary American emo scene of the 2010’s, Baker along with her contemporaries Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus have all moved past their slowcore, quaint indie folk origins and created instrumentally rich records full that have propelled their careers forward.
A phrase floating around on Twitter before this album came out was “depression, but with drums” and if i’m being honest, Little Oblivions fits that description nicely. There is of course a lot more depth to it than that but the added percussion, especially on tracks like “Bloodshot” and “Ringside” make you wonder what Baker’s music would have been like had this been the norm from the start? The percussion ranges from hard hitting acoustic snare beats and cymbals to minimalistic loops that you feel like were added in with painstaking attention to detail.
Opener “Hardline” blasts your eardrums with a multitude of vibrant instrumentation choices, coupled with Baker’s acceptance of regression and struggles with addiction in the lyrics, making this a strong track to set off the album. It’s the first gut punch of many on Little Oblivions, with lyrics like “I’m telling my own fortune, something I cannot escape, I can see where this is going, but I can’t find the brake”. On her first release Sprained Ankle she claimed that she wished she could write songs about anything other than death, and even if it’s not always literally about death, Little Oblivions in a way has become a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
However, the expectations ‘Hardline’ sets for the rest of the record are hard to top. When Baker relied solely on her guitar and subtle ornamentations in her previous work, this made her songs a lot more memorable. In this case, it feels like there’s almost too much going on with Little Oblivions for tracks to always necessarily stand out on their own. “Faith Healer” and “Repeat” are the biggest departures from Baker’s sound, and despite some hard hitting, self deprecating lines, the by the numbers indie instrumentation becomes more of a distraction than enhancing the listening experience. The gospel inspired backing vocals on “Favor” provided by her Boygenius bandmates work well in a more stripped back context, even if it’s because the acoustic guitar lead is reminiscent of early Elliott Smith.
Case in point, “Song in E” sees Baker reaching almost cinematic heights with lavish piano notes, each key hit with further deliberation than the last. It doesn’t need a full backing ensemble to get its point across and would feel unnecessary if this were the case. She holds nothing back expressing this desire for self punishment and validation through that rather than whoever she’s hurt giving her nothing in return, even if from the outside that seems like the mature option; “I wish you’d hurt me, it’s the mercy I can’t take.”
Fans who wanted a fuller experience of Baker’s blunt autobiographical ventures will have a lot to sink their teeth into on Little Oblivions, alongside being able to channel cynical viewpoints and criticisms of herself into a form of empowerment rather than self pity or cringe. For the most part Baker is strongest when the instrumentation is minimal as too many of the songs on here don’t quite hit the same consistency of quality, despite the earnest songwriting. This is her biggest sounding album yet, but doesn’t always manage to make a lasting impression.