On her third studio album, Little Oblivions, Julien Baker touches on dark themes of abuse and drug use, while also demonstrating how her musical prowess and lyrical capabilities have become more complex.
The album marks a change for Baker’s artistry as she expands her arsenal of instruments. This transition from a heavy reliance on piano and guitar, found in the rest of her discography, is fairly effective in improving her style. For instance, the percussion on the first track, “Hardline,” helps support the instrumental break. Adding more instrumentation also makes Baker’s vocals as well as the guitars stand out even more.
“Heatwave” haunts the listener with imagery of death interspersed throughout the lyrics. The song is a dark examination of mortality and the effect of death on others. Baker’s lyricism excels by painting a vivid picture of a horrific car accident and then commenting on how this person’s death will “make me late for work.” This thought horrifies Baker, and she ponders why life is filled with so much suffering. The song’s melody, however, remains relatively upbeat despite the lyrics’ heavy themes, creating an interesting contrast and feeding into the idea that the world keeps marching on in spite of death.
“Crying Wolf” takes the imagery from the classic fable and applies it to the paranoia of drug use. It’s a smart use of the fable that dives into the cyclical nature of addiction and how frustrating it is to watch someone fall into this spiral. Lyrics such as “I’m not crying wolf” tap into the paranoia and difficulty of maintaining sobriety, especially when others don’t fully understand the struggle of fighting to stay sober. The fairy tale lens masks her struggles with sobriety and displays some of Baker’s best lyricism.
It’s worth noting that while the comparisons to her friend and fellow Boygenius member Phoebe Bridgers are inevitable, the comparisons fail to recognize Baker’s unique tact for lyrical subtlety. Little Oblivions doesn’t ever reach the highs and emotional catharsis of Bridgers’ 2020 album Punisher. But, Baker never seems to attempt to try that. Instead, Little Oblivions gingerly approaches tough topics, letting Baker’s brutal lyricism take over. It’s a subtle effort and not as immediately intoxicating as Punisher. But through this approach, Baker proves that she is more than just a side character next to Bridgers.
“Song in E” is one of the shortest songs on the album but manages to say so much in so little time. This is notably one of the few songs with Baker’s old instrumentation style. The quiet piano draws attention toward these frustrated lyrics. Baker is begging for her partner to scream at her because “It’s the mercy I can’t take.” This lyrical painting describes the awkward and languished period that exists before the death of a relationship with relatively few lines. But her emotional vocals fill these sparse lyrics, conveying emotions through her inflection where words fail.
Little Oblivions is the sort of album that gets better with each listen. Each dive into the album brings a specific lyric to light or a new aspect to be appreciated. Its lyricism is brutally and unflinchingly descriptive. Baker is not afraid to describe death, drug use, and drug abuse in detail, and she manages to accomplish this without falling into needlessly edgy territory. She walks a thin line. Little Oblivions is an evolution of Baker’s lyricism and skill that will be tough to top in the future.
Photo Courtesy of Matador Records