Throughout Julien Baker’s career, her sobriety has been a focal point of her public image. Her catalogue is full of emotionally rich musings on the struggles of substance abuse, and her Christian background informs her lyrical framework, one built on the spectrum of sin and mercy. But while on tour in 2019 performing this music as a figurehead of redemption, Julien relapsed and entered a year-long struggle with addiction. “It was very humbling to have the crux of your existence and your identity as an artist be something that you are no longer able to uphold,” she told i-D. So she stopped touring, returned to school to finish her degree, and created Little Oblivions, her third studio album.
Sonically, it’s the richest record in her discography. Previously steadfast in her minimalism, she wore her ability to perform all her material solo with only a guitar and a pedal like a badge of honor. Now on Little Oblivions, Julien allows herself to be supported by a lush array of guitars, pianos and drum kits (plus even more unexpected instruments like a theremin in the twangy “Heatwave”). In freeing herself from this standard of sonic purity, she also releases herself from the image of the sober disciple Julien Baker that crumbled in 2019. Little Oblivions has energy and momentum; it ebbs and flows just like recovery. In her most adventurous album yet, Julien is a human being recognizing her own limitations and an artist creating her work in spite of them.
Almost every song on the record is a sonic microcosm for this kind of growth. The album opener “Hardline” snowballs into a headbanger, “Crying Wolf” opens with vibraphone and crescendos into wailing, and “Faith Healer’s” tentative drums come in waves that periodically crash. It’s relieving to no longer hear Julien operating from a place of musical restraint. Vocally, she’s as strong as ever; Little Oblivions’ musical diversity allows Julien to stretch her voice beyond her usual whisperiness. Several of the most notable songs are reminiscent of boygenius tracks, the band Julien released an EP with in 2018. Her bandmates Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus even make a background vocal appearance on “Favor,” a song that asks the question: “How long do I have until/I’ve spent up everyone’s goodwill?” Little Oblivions is dripping with this type of anxiety, constantly questioning whether mistakes render someone unworthy of mercy and kindness.
Other tracks like “Relative Fiction,” “Repeats,” “Bloodshot” almost feel like pop songs, demonstrating Julien’s excellent grasp of melody as well as her earlier stripped-back tracks. Julien’s never made songs that sound, for lack of a better word, quite as happy as these, even though they’re not happy at all. They’re simply more matter-of-fact about the inevitability of her failures (“‘Cause if I didn’t have a mean bone in my body/I’d find some other way to cause you pain,” she sings in “Relative Fiction”). With infectious melodies and glowing rock production, these songs are instant classics and prove Julien’s usual sonic sparseness isn’t the only home for her stories.
The major musical outlier, “Song in E,” is one of the strongest and most memorable tracks on the album. In a tracklist full of multimovement rock songs, “Song in E” stands apart as a tentative, haunting piano song with a melody as airtight as any pop ballad. In Julien’s own words, “Song in E” “is a great example of what’s so uncomfortable about common Christian understandings of propitiation or Christ fulfilling the need for God to punish humans” (UPROXX). She’s performed it live since 2018, so it predates most of the other tracks on the album, but its inclusion gives the record some needed sonic diversity.
In general, Julien’s lyrics have always been influenced by Christian imagery and frameworks, and Little Oblivions is no different. The closing track “Ziptie” addresses this most literally; in it, she finds herself “limping like a prodigal son” asking God “when’re you gonna call it off/climb down off the cross/and change your mind.” Melding the black-and-white construction of Christian morality with the eternal gray area of addiction and recovery is Julien’s strongest lyrical approach, and it’s what makes her music so notable. The eternal quest for grace gives the album a sense of thematic unity, a pulsing narrative that runs through each track that refuses to be fully resolved.
Surprising in its production and familiar in its themes, Little Oblivions has the potential to launch Julien Baker into the next layer of indie fame, much like Punisher did for her collaborator Phoebe Bridgers. Julien’s music has never sounded more accessible, and her lyrics have never been more raw. It’s always rewarding to hear an artist move past the mold they created for themselves, and Julien does it so thoughtfully here. Her music will probably always be emotionally devastating, but Little Oblivions proves that her sadness won’t always sound the same. In an album that addresses the evasiveness of true, pure redemption, Julien manages to achieve it.
Little Oblivions drops tomorrow.