2020 • ALTERNATIVE/ROCK • MATADOR
On her third studio album, Tennessee singer Julien Baker delivers intimate acoustic folk songs but seems unable to create nuances and something really different from the rest.
It is curious to examine Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus’s life before and after the boygenius, a musical group formed by them in 2018. In the case of Dacus, we cannot yet see the role of this experience in her artistic life as she has not yet released an album after that. However, in the case of Bridgers, we can see a significant advance. Comparing Phoebe’s first and second albums, it is clear that her sound became sharper and bolder and her compositions even more intimate and powerful. In Baker’s case, however, we see the opposite. While the Tennessee singer’s first two albums worked on self-analysis, religion, and rejection over a challenging sound, on her new album, Little Oblivions, she seems to slow down and weaken all the factors that previously made her a great artist.
Compared to her last album — and even her first — Baker’s last release is more lukewarm, with songs that intertwine in both thematic and sound making it almost as if the album were a huge intimate song. Obviously, Little Oblivions is not that, but it is a pity since, perhaps, this would have been a more exciting result. To put it simply, Little Oblivions is a set of acoustic indie songs that talk about love, existential crises, and addictions. As much as it is an interesting approach that in most cases yields incredible records, here we had two groups as a result: one being the group of beautiful songs that manage to be well-produced, personal, and catchy; and the other a set of predictable, generic and forgettable songs that add nothing to Julien’s discography. At the end of the day, in Little Oblivions, Baker seems more concerned with talking all at once than dissecting what’s going on.
At the first of these groups we can see what Little Oblivions really should have been: an album full of well-balanced and well-directed songs that in their composition have the right dose of metaphors and clear moments, and in their sounds, something atmospheric, impressive, and engaging, which also manages to be minimalist. One of the best examples of this perfect combination is the album’s initial track, “Hardline,” where Baker does a kind of summary of her life. A kind of terrifying vintage keyboard starts the song and then every sound is converted to a spatial experience ordered by synthesizers. In the lyrics, she sings about depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and mercy. “Until then, I’ll split the difference/Between medicine and poison,” she sings.
Fortunately, the good songs on the album are like this. Her analyzes are deep and end up being even more painful for those who easily identify with it. In “Relative Fiction,” next to strings and what seems like a shy desire for muffled industrial beats, she analyzes herself. She knows herself, knows her vision of herself, and yet she says, “I won’t bother telling you I’m sorry/For something that I’m gonna do again.” Further into the album, while “Crying Wolf” is composed entirely of a piano, soft strings, and Baker’s unwavering voice trapped in a loop from which she cannot get out, “Song in E” shows her in a vulnerable moment, worthy of a Romanticism book with her singing about going back to her addictions because she broke someone’s heart. It is at these points that she can feel what she is singing, with her voice.
The best songs on the album are the two moments when Baker manages to create something that is the perfect and well-balanced combination of her best qualities and her writing and musical skills. “Ringside” has a sound that seems like an intimate desire composed of strings and opaque drums. On the track, Baker talks about his OCD craze. She sings, “Beat myself until I’m bloody/And I’ll give you a ringside seat.” As time goes by, the song evolves, adopts synthesizers and the lyrics become even more intense. “So Jesus, can you help me now?/Trade me in for a briar crown/Is there anybody coming back for me?” she sings. In “Highlight Reel,” on the other hand, the highlight is the song’s production, especially at the end where a bunch of synthesizers comes together with drums, strings, and keyboards to create this kind of imaginary sentimental confusion.
However, the worst songs on the album are those that, different from those already mentioned, rarely go beyond the classic stereotype of acoustic folk songs, hovering almost always over an instrumental monotony composed of strings, percussions, and generic synthetics. While “Repeat” sounds like something totally borrowed from Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, “Bloodshot” sounds different but totally forgettable, and “Favor” just sounds like something everyone has heard. On the other hand, although Baker’s composition is sharp, at times she doesn’t seem to know how to measure her metaphors and delivers confusing lyrics. This happens in “Heatwave” and “Faith Healer,” where you can even map where the music is going, but halfway there are many variables that make you question whether you are right. In the final stretch, “Ziptie” is too weak to close the record. Even though the album has its good points, at the end of the day it still seems that Baker is more concerned with telling you everything through a code than really showing what she was feeling.