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Julien Baker - Little Oblivions (Album Review)

Monday, 08 March 2021 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

Julien Baker has always treated the gaps between notes as an integral part of her music, using sparse, brittle backing to foreground gut-shot lyrical observations and searching questions, or splitting moments of calm with a refrain that pours out like a torrent. On ‘Little Oblivions’ the challenge is to maintain this piercing sort of compositional nous when there’s a lot more going on in the background.

This is comfortably Baker’s most expansive release, fusing her crystalline guitar lines with whirling keys and fidgety drums that at times recall the anti-structure playing of producer Jim Dickinson on Big Star’s ‘Third’. Against this canvas she reckons with growth and understanding, relapse and self-criticism, finding fresh modes of expression without sidelining her voice.

The initial movements of the LP are particularly instructive, with stabbing notes answered by Baker’s words: measured, poised. Slowly she fills the space with stuttering guitar notes and a ticking hi-hat.

Baker’s time with Boygenius—where her vocals and leads accented hooks and harmonies delivered by Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, who show up here on Favor—has apparently left a mark.

In a sense she is happy to leave her vocals to fend for themselves. Heatwave’s wonky organ line drops in almost unannounced a minute or so in, adding momentum that fuses with her lyrics in a manner that the austere intro hardly suggested was possible. See also the superb Ringside, which delights in the subtlety of its hooks without letting up on its percussive alt-rock stomp. “Nobody deserves a second chance but, honey, I keep getting them,” Baker sings with a Springsteenian twist.

‘Little Oblivions’ is an ideal extension of Baker’s sound because it begins from a place of understanding. Adding a drum kit and some keys to a record is hardly revolutionary in isolation, but in context it’s something more pointed. That she can place her voice—so often isolated as the bravura anchor for her songs—in a new setting without losing its power opens up a whole new world.

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