When Julien Baker dropped “Faith Healer” late last year, the indie-folk world took notice with good reason. Its beautiful lyrics and fierce honesty served as a neat reminder of why her 2017 album Turn Out the Lights was such a runaway hit, but there was more to it than that. Her sound, marked by spare, acoustic elements, had mushroomed into something noticeably bigger and bolder. As the first single released off the album, “Faith Healer” was the first hint that her style as a solo artist was evolving. Its expansive arrangements were unlike pretty much anything we’d heard from her before. While Baker was already undeniably one of the strongest and most thoughtful voices in indie folk, Little Oblivions (★★★★☆) marks a sonic shift that is impressive even for her.
The glorious, room-filling sound of “Faith Healer” signaled a new approach that can be heard throughout the album. While Turn Out the Lights had a crisp sparseness that worked well to frame the intimately autobiographical songwriting, Baker’s newfound love of bold, expansive soundscapes can be heard in the rotary blasts and rich strings section of opener “Hardline” and in the intense, percussion-heavy builds of “Relative Fiction.”
The other great strength of Little Oblivions is in the frankness of the songwriting, which has thankfully lost none of its punch since her last album. She takes us into characteristically vulnerable places with blunt admissions, as on the track “Crying Wolf,” which features among other incisive lines, “Couldn’t stand the thought/of having everything to lose.” “Ringside” is a plaintive, matter-of-fact reckoning with her self-destructive tendencies as well as the very human tendency to reject help. While she is again taking the same cards-on-the-table approach as she has in the past, her gift for penning stark, poetic lyrics with just the right level of detachment keeps the songs from feeling overdone.
While her songwriting is unquestionably strong, her vocals are what allow it to really land. With her voice striking just the right balance between vulnerable and self-assured, Baker shows off a range that we haven’t quite seen before on tracks like “Faith Healer” and the haunting “Song in E.” Another of the album’s singles, “Favor,” features some hypnotic backing vocals from her fellow boygenius alums Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, but it is again Baker’s voice that is the star.
As tempting as it often is to point to significant stylistic shifts as evidence of reinvention, Julien Baker has remained absolutely true to herself through her stylistic evolution. Although she is experimenting with a bolder style and new ways of writing songs, the new album is every inch the work of the same artist who mesmerized listeners with her sophomore album in 2017. With beautiful arrangements and a captivating bluntness, Little Oblivions is a wonderfully absorbing listen from beginning to end.
Little Oblivions, released by Matador Records, is available on all streaming services and for sale on Friday, Feb. 26.
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