No Glory in Love: Julien Baker's Little Oblivions, by Eleanor Prytherch
Around this time last year, about when everything fell apart and sad indie music came to make up a large part of my personality, I started listening to Julien Baker’s music. Almost a year later, I welcome Baker’s third studio album, Little Oblivions, into a very different version of my life. Little Oblivions means big changes, artistic and personal, for Baker, too. Three years after the release of Turn Out the Lights, two years after her hiatus from constant tours, Little Oblivions is a rich exploration of Baker’s musical identity and personal demons.
Baker grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, raised on classic emo and pop punk bands like My Chemical Romance and Fallout Boy. She taught herself to play guitar on her father’s neglected acoustic and learned their songs by ear. By her early teens, she was an active member of her local punk scene as part of her band, The Star Killers (later renamed Forrister). She released her first solo album, Sprained Ankle, on Bandcamp in 2015 at age nineteen, which was later re-released by indie label 6131 Records. The album was an unexpected success, at least to Baker, and began her tenure as one of the most honest, introspective voices in the genre of melancholic indie music. In 2017, she released Turn Out the Lights, a poignant and plaintive record. On Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights, against a backdrop of spare instrumentation, Baker explores her identity as a queer, christian woman as well as her struggles with severe mental illness and substance abuse.
In 2018, she joined her indie rock colleagues Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus as the supergroup boygenius. Together they released a critically celebrated, self-titled EP and set out on tour. After that tour, Baker took a break for the first time since she was a teenager. After being vocally sober for years, the break forced her to reckon with her history of mental illness and substance abuse in a concrete way. Her third album, Little Oblivions, was born from this period of self-destruction and from the support of the people around her who ultimately helped her pull herself back up.
Little Oblivions is a bold departure from her signature musical simplicity. This album consists of mature instrumentals and experiments in production. It was a big step for her to include drums after her reliance on guitar loops and piano for most of her solo career. Baker was inspired to liberate herself from those self-imposed creative constraints after her collaboration with Bridgers and Dacus. On this album, she’s allowed herself to return to the full band sound from which she got her start as a musician. Her signature guitar loops return, but this time, they melt into a lush background of rhythm and colorful effects. Baker wrote and produced the album on her own; she insisted on playing most of the instruments herself. The result is an emotional musical backdrop for a confessional album.
Baker revisits the themes of her earlier albums and further takes these themes to new depths. The ambiguous allusions to her struggles with mental illness and addiction from previous albums is more specific in Little Oblivions. Now, she references specific manifestations of her OCD as well as her drug and alcohol abuse. Her faith takes a backseat among the themes on this album, a reflection of her public relationship with organized Christianity. What stands out most to me is the strong throughline that is her experience with personal relationships, and how they’re impacted by her self-destructive tendencies. In contrast to the solitary introspection of Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights, this album is about how painful it is to watch your own mental illness hurt the people around you, and how difficult it is to accept their support when it doesn’t feel deserved.
“When it finally gets to be too much / I always told you, you could leave at any time,” sings Baker on “Hardline,” the album’s opening track. “When you heard my name / You could be angry and have a good reason to be,” she sings in Song in E, a pared-down piano track toward the close of the album. In Favor, Baker reunites with boygenius members Bridgers and Dacus, singing “If I had my way / I'd have missed you more / Than you missed me.” The experience that permeates across the album is the internal conflict of being loved when we’re at our worst. At its heart, Little Oblivions is about the reality that we don’t struggle in a vacuum, for better or worse.
As someone who’s leaned heavily on Julien Baker’s music to get me through this past year, it’s hard for me to objectively review this album. Julien Baker is a difficult person to care so deeply about as an individual—it’s sometimes almost too difficult to listen to her self-critical lyrics. At the same time, this sharp honesty and allowance for pain is what makes her music so cathartic. All these qualities are amplified in the musical and thematic expansion that is Little Oblivions, a musical leap of faith that documents Baker’s period of personal leaps of faith.
In this grateful fan’s opinion, Julien Baker offers an honest, tender listen for music lovers in need of their own little oblivion these days.