- Content Warning: Julien Baker's latest album is a project that directly engages with a range of sensitive subjects. It should be noted before reading that this review will reference addiction, experiences of trauma, mental health difficulties and discussions of self-harm and suicide -
For Julien Baker, recovering from the addiction and substance abuse that underpinned both her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle and 2017's Turn Out The Lights seemed less about moving forwards as much as confronting dead ends. Planting vocal stand-offs at a blistering intersection between hope and despair, a question remained: 'where could Julien Baker go from here?'
"Maybe the emptiness is / just a lesson in canvases" offered one tentative line from that sophomore record, encapsulating the sparse and ascetic outlines of an album almost too lonely to bear. In its darkened piano hymns, Baker's music painted bodies as inanimate, broken and sometimes irreparable cracks in the drywall. Now, with this year's Little Oblivions, Baker has stepped out from the woodwork into the spotlit centre of a full indie-rock backdrop, delivering lush instrumental sceneries set to brutal, flesh-rending lyrics. It’s a painfully-realised album about the conflict between substances and those around us, bloodying the line between love and cruelty, fact and fiction, and the revolving cycles of abuse. Amidst this whiplash of extremes, subtler truths are uncovered behind the stark confessions that have come to define Julien Baker's discography.
‘Hardline’ awakens to the metallic throbs of a blackout, with the artist raising a worn cheek of denial and regret only to turn and submit to relapses like brass-knuckle blows. In the aftermath of this bruising anaesthesia the banality of a normal life becomes unendurable, as ‘Heatwave’ witnesses the random, pointless explosion of another vehicle amidst the boredom of traffic. Rendered in smoky vocal hues and disconcertingly inviting guitar tones, Baker constructs a devastating outro in which she pledges to “wrap Orion’s belt around my neck / and kick the chair out;” a final distillation of the track's heart-wrenching resignation.
Lead single ‘Faith Healer’ goes on to address a paradox of yearning to feel, even if that were to be a total numbness or an inability to discern pleasure from pain. The relationship that Julien sings about becomes indistinguishable from the drugs she craves, as something to be be clawed and fought for or abandoned cold turkey. Scrawled across the album cover is the rough unsentimental line: "there’s no glory in love / only the gore of our hearts"— where tenderness is just another wound to bleed out from.
While the recurrence of these unsparing themes can feel like the same note being replayed (such as with the agonising contemplations of ‘Ringside’) it is when the mindset behind these self-lacerations is laid bare that Julien’s songwriting hits hardest. Touching on moments of fragility behind the severed lines of empathy that hang across her defeatism, on ‘Favor’ only the faint harmonising of a boygenius reunion rescues Baker from total isolation. Lyricising deflected pleas from friends and family to get help, alongside the twisted pathos of wanting to evade their concerns by bearing them herself, fading out into the loneliness of the line "if I had my way / I’d have missed you more / than you missed me" delivers a visceral punishment. The album’s quiet best 'Song E’ sees a delicate return to piano keys, only just softening the bluntness of the rocks and hard places she finds herself between. Mourning her inability to accept mercy, what emerges is the figure of a ‘talented liar’, deceiving herself and others as much as she appears to deal only in unadorned truth.
After the Lost in Translation-style ennui on standalone single ‘Tokyo’, in which the transit between airplanes and hotel rooms captured the detached limbo of touring, the life that Julien finds herself living on Little Oblivions feels grounded by glimpses of lonely bars and the contours of her relationship with her girlfriend, images that go past as if seen out of a car window. Yet from the headlights that wash over her lovers body on ‘Relative Fiction’ to the album’s empty highways and dark electricity pylons, a gravelly, synthetic quality hangs suspended in the layered production, flickering like a life lived in half-light. This effect haunts the final few tracks, as the blurred between reality and fiction becomes inescapable. After resigning herself to the inevitability of her future mistakes and her inability to escape them, the pleas on ‘Repeat’ that wonder
"when the drugs wear off
will the love kick in
would you stay out long enough
to start again?" ['Repeat']
only succumb to the same self-rationalising cycles and fabrications, and their disguising of a terrible truth— as she speaks into an empty vehicle, addressing the hazy form of a partner who is no longer there.
On the revelatory climaxes of her last album, even as it cracked and strained, Julien Baker’s voice soared above her pain, but on Little Oblivions, a digital undertow threatens to drown her highest notes, fluorescing with eddies of distortion. On ‘Highlight Reel’, in which she wakes to the full extent of the damage she has done, as if trapped in a car wreck and seeing her life flash before her eyes the urgency behind her final cry for self-determination is wrought with all the electrical intensity of bringing a body back to life— lit up and reverberating as if hooked up to jumper cables. It’s a heady peak of catharsis and metafiction that ebbs into the heart-monitor coda of ‘Ziptie’, closing with a limping image of resurrection that pictures for faith and recovery what Baker has long seen in her burnt-out feelings towards love and substances. It’s honest and bleak, and it's the start of something new. Forwards.
- 8.4 -
'Hardline', 'Favor', 'Song in E'
Sam Harding is a student at York and an enthusiast of mosh pits. He is trying to marry music with writing but is running out of onomatopoeia. Life soundtrack includes underground rap and electronic bleep bloops.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He edited this article and he is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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