Album Review: Julien Baker – ‘Little Oblivions’

Posted: by The Editor

The Christian sacrament of penance is most often depicted in media with shots of each side of the confessional booth. Priest and parishioner facing the camera while absolution is given for behavioral follow-up, whether it be ten Hail Mary’s or something more. Penance is both exactly this simple, and far more complicated. While it is certainly a way to be forgiven in the eyes of God, it’s a voluntary self-punishment one inflicts on themselves – it isn’t supposed to be easy. The first few lines of Julien Baker’s new album, Little Oblivions, echo the difficulty inherent in penance. Though Baker may take this punishment too far, as she sings on “Ringside” that she’ll beat herself “till she’s bloody,” this is closer to how asking for forgiveness can feel. Though clergy might simply tell you how to become forgiven, it is a detached absolution. Learning to forgive ourselves is a much harder task. 

The album opens with the harsh, beautiful organ chords of “Hardline,” and the lines “Blacked out on a weekday / Still, something that I’m trying to avoid / Start asking for forgiveness in advance / For all the future things I will destroy.” The track begins a quiet stunner, moving slowly with swaying orchestral accompaniment. Then it builds, before igniting, engulfing everything in gorgeous chaos. The song’s accompanying video, a feat of animation that took NAME 600 hours to complete, depicts a dynamic between two characters that feels more like a story mixed into the background of much of Baker’s music. One character is bent on making destructive decisions, and the other, despite a truly crushing narrowing of the eyes, enables them. Baker doesn’t hide that she’s made mistakes, and will again. The concept comes up not just on “Hardline” but on “Relative Fiction” as well. 

Little Oblivions feels like a giant leap for Baker as she expands her scope, finally being accompanied by a fleshed out live band. This gives her the opportunity to create arrangements as interesting as the one found on “Heatwave.” While it has a soaring guitar lead in that would feel at home on any prior Baker record, its chorus sees the inclusion of theremin and synths, which, despite feeling a touch alien at first, nestle in nicely to the anthemic nature of the song. While musically it’s a bright and upbeat number, it carries the album’s lyrical through-line of darkness. The line “On a long spiral down / Before I make it to the ground / I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck / And kick the chair out” has haunted me for months. There’s something so beautiful in that imagery, despite how violently sad it is at face value – a dichotomy that has become a hallmark of Baker’s songwriting.

Though it might not be easy to tell if Baker becomes any more accepting of forgiveness throughout these songs, you can hear the catharsis in admitting that difficulty. On the demure “Song in E,” she airs her anxieties over a plinking piano that sounds more like the world’s saddest music box. “It’s the mercy I can’t take” rounds out each verse. The line cuts every time, bringing home the pain of penance. It’s also one of the most relatable feelings conjured on the record. “How could you ever forgive me when I can’t even forgive myself” follows nearly every trespass I’ve ever made. Little Oblivions is a record for the world to hear, sure, but it feels so much like Baker exercising something dark from her conscience. It has all the trappings of a piece of art that had to happen, for everyone’s sake.

Disappointing / Average/ Good / Great / Phenomenal

Eric Bennett | @seething_coast

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