Little Oblivions (Matador/Remote Control)
Don’t believe the books and videos and seminars and sermons. Will it all you want, act on it all you want, but everything and nothing can change. Or maybe that is better expressed as some parts of us are forever in flux but never going to be entirely resolved.
Or simpler still: same shit, different clothes.
Julien Baker, across her first two albums, explored faith (without hostility), addiction (without disgust), love (without finality) and maturity (without certainty). She did it with a sound that was close, but not bare – its emphasis on the intimate connection developed by the tone rather than enforced by the rawness.
And it was very good: warm and personal, beguiling but never needy, peppered with hooks, especially 2017’s Turn Out The Lights.
A few years on, she’s back with some more experience and awareness, but it’s clearly been on a zig-zagging path of growth and regression, rebuilding and stumbles, knowledge and the continuing absence of some answers.
“The smoke alarm’s been going off for weeks/Half the time it isn’t what you think/Faith healer come put your hands on me/Snake oil dealer, I’ll believe you if you make me feel something.”
Yep. Faith, addiction, love and a quest for whatever maturity is are at the roots of it – again. Of course. Always.
(Though if you’re coming expecting some pandemic-related reflections or messaging, you’d be wrong. It was written and recorded more than a year ago, before the world went to shit. That said, a line from the final, echoes-in-space, punch-in-the-gut track, Ziptie – “Good God, when are you gonna call it off/Climb down off the cross/And change your mind” – feels pretty appropriate.)
Baker’s not pretending she’s got anything “fixed”, or that those close to her aren’t having to watch the process she’s going through as more than passersby. As she sings in Ringside, “Beat myself until I'm bloody/And I'll give you a ringside seat/Say that it's embarrassing/I'm sorry that you had to see me like that”.
In these songs, Baker talks about her personal failures in a way that rips her skin to shreds right before your eyes and ears. But she does it without the affectations of the pop confessional, which tend to dramatised self-loathing or extravagant demands for pity. When she says “Jesus can you help me now” it’s not a flourish but a genuine request.
Rather, it’s acute self-observation, usually sung in her easy-speaking style that curls and curves conversationally so that you don’t notice at first a fast-developing technique that carries personality in undertones as much as anything on the top. Though by the time she cuts through Song In E towards the end of the album we can be in no doubt of her capacity for impact.
But if her singing is still understated and her lyrical zones are familiar, the textures of Little Oblivions are significantly reshaped. The sound, the scope, is wider, and on the opening Hardline, vast: that songs ends up almost like a Sigur Ros grand landscape-forging song, and Ringside threatens to follow suit.
A fuller band sound of synths, rock rhythm section, programmed beats, and piano – these add-ons mostly played by her – gives this album a more traditional indie/alternative radio feel at times, most particularly in the slowly rising, Dessner-emphasis of Bloodshot.
But a more nuanced pop sense (Favor and the hazy gem Heatwave for example brings strong echoes of Aimee Mann in their walking of the line between melancholy and melodic meditation; Repeat nods to both Johnny Marr and Emmylou Harris) stops it getting stuck in anything like a rut.
By the by, I’d love to see a double bill of Baker and Holly Throsby sometime, if any promoter is reading. Crying Wolf, whose guitar and piano come at you from different hurts, feels like a song that could hang between their sets, bridging NSW south coast and Memphis, Tennessee.
There’s time, as this story isn’t anywhere near being finished.