I want to write about Julien Baker’s new album, Little Oblivions, without bringing up the singer-songwriter’s bandmates in boygenius. It’s so hard, though. Just like her cohorts, Baker spun away from that indie dream group with a readiness to expand her sonic palette. The material on Little Oblivions has a low-heat scald that’s familiar from Baker’s earlier work. It also swells and cascades in different ways. If it never quite explodes, there’s a heartier rumble to her storm clouds. The downpour is imminent.
By Baker’s account, she allowed herself to go to a fraught, precarious place when she wrote the songs for the new album. The storytelling in the lyrics is heavy with confession, of damage delivered and self-directed. Even when the music is defined by an abiding loveliness, the words Baker sings, sometimes moaned with a hint of reluctance, are likely to offer a harsh reality check. “Heatwave” has a melodic lilt that’s fiercely countered by the bleakness of its words: “I was 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.” It’s catharsis with the relief of finished healing withheld.
Baker still occasionally employs the strategy of pulling back until a track nearly recedes into the ether. “Song in E” piercing and pure in its spareness, opening with the devastating lines “I wish that I drank because of you
And not only because of me.” Even then, then texture of the song is more complicated than it initially seems, piling fragile layers on top of one another. That complexity and stealth adventurousness holds while songs grow bigger and bolder, as with the skittering tones of “Faith Healer” and the machinery clunks of “Ringside.” “Repeat” has got an Arcade Fire creep going on, and “Hardline” swirls and swells magnificently (and, again, the lyrics deliver roundhouse punches: “I always told you, you could leave at any time/ Until then I’ll split the difference/ Between medicine and poison”). Sometimes, the landscape of the music tells a story all its own. I love the way “Favor” slows and softens at the end, like the song itself is drifting off to weary sleep.
Part of the reason I keep drifting back to those other two gifted musicians in boygenius, I will admit, is that I warmed to them first. I could recognize Baker’s skill and craft, but I found her creations distant, difficult to crack. That’s not the case for me any longer. Little Oblivions makes me a believer.