Julien Baker’s self-loathing star shines bright on ‘Little Oblivions’

Photo Courtesy of Matador Records

Photo Courtesy of Matador Records

Owen Conway, Staff Writer

In popular music full of depressing and gloomy songwriting, several contenders have thrown their hats into the ring for the title of Number One Debby Downer. Phoebe Bridgers’ Elliott Smith-inspired haunting ballads, “Folkmore” era Taylor Swift’s quarantine-fueled masterstrokes, and SZA’s yearning R&B grooves have all supplanted any other genre and have become the hot topic setting fire to the entire music industry. 


But bubbling beneath the surface, mostly dodging mainstream popularity and crafting perhaps the most beautifully heartbreaking music of all has been Julien Baker. The indie artist and Boygenius cofounder’s new album Little Oblivions is a grand, gorgeous, and vulnerable statement on depression, addiction, consequences, and recovery. 


The Tennessee native’s songwriting prowess comes as no surprise, with two previous solo albums and a masterpiece collaborative EP with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus all under Baker’s belt. But this time around, a rounded out and experimental sound coupled with gut-wrenching lyrics makes “Little Oblivions” the biggest triumph of Julien Baker’s already impressive career. 


Expanding on the simple and stripped-down sound of her previous albums, Baker builds on her comfort zone of acoustic balladry with funky synth fills, heavier and almost tinny drumming, and grunge-inspired guitar that gives the songs a roomfilling quality that demands the return of live music to hear them in person. 


More impressive than her sound, though, is Baker’s lyricism. Between the prevalence and normalcy of substance abuse in the music industry and the general lack of understanding amongst those who have never been around it, the full impact of addiction may be lost on many who listen to songs of that nature. All throughout “Little Oblivions, Baker paints a painfully clear picture of the chaos of substance abuse from the physical and mental harm to oneself and one’s loved ones to the impossible act of reconciliation that follows. 


Julien Baker has been vulnerable all her life. It comes with the territory of professional musicianship, but not every professional musician is an openly gay woman from a Christian upbringing in Tennessee that has struggled with substance abuse. By embracing her lifetime’s worth of vulnerability and molding it into beautiful, touching art, Julien Baker has rightfully earned her place among the best songwriters of her generation, and “Little Oblivions” is a masterful testament to how far she has come.