Indie rocker Julien Baker is known for delivering songs that are punches to the gut, brimming with lyrics about mental health and substance abuse while her soaring and prayerful voice amplifies the pain of it all.
The 25-year-old product of the Memphis hardcore punk scene, Baker survived teenage addiction and emerged Christian, queer and sober. She’s been a mainstay on my depression playlists since I heard “Sprained Ankle,” the stripped-down title track of her 2015 debut album as a solo artist, where she equates her life to trying to run a marathon on two sprained ankles.
It would be incomplete to just call Baker’s music vulnerable. The industry today is rife with female vulnerability; there is huge demand for young artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo and their “raw” and “fragile” music.
Baker’s music is something darker and more self-flagellating. At times, she embodies a more sinister side of the “starving artist” stereotype: perpetually suffering, translating her pain for public consumption.
Although Baker’s vivid accounts of benders, addiction and self-sabotaging behavior have garnered critical acclaim, all of this success as a result of pain laid bare and commodified reinforces the idea that suffering is noble for the artist and disincentivizes growth.
But Baker’s third album, “Little Oblivions,” released Feb. 26, doesn’t buy into that. Between the descriptions of self-hatred and internal pain are signs that point toward change and maturation, both artistic and personal. Instead of reveling in pain, she is clawing her way out of it, crafting an authentic portrait of healing as nonlinear and messy.
The production on “Little Oblivions” is lusher than that on her previous albums. At times, the instrumentation obscures her voice, but in the quiet moments, Baker’s words stand out and cut like a knife. When I first started listening, I was afraid it was overproduced and her powerful lyrics would be lost in a murky sonic palette, but instead, her words rise above the fray and the production provides a backdrop that complements the themes of struggle, pain and change that arise in them.
At times, the melodies on her first two albums felt like afterthoughts to her lyrics, which were incredible, but no other elements of the songs were vying for the spotlight. On “Little Oblivions,” the production elevates and complements Baker’s lyricism, with sonic boosts providing springboards for powerful lines on two of the album’s standouts.
On “Hardline,” Baker sings, “I’m telling my own fortune / Something I cannot escape / I can see where this is going / But I can’t find the brake,” her voice rising to a shout and elongating the final word before the song descends into drums. When she sings, “Jesus, can you help me now?” on “Ringside,” the backing vocals create an echo effect as if the line was cried out in an empty church.
Baker’s expanded soundscape reflects her refusal to succumb to suffering and her grit to push forward, and it is that resolve which guides this album. The world isn’t acoustic and stripped down — it’s chaotic and messy, and you relapse, struggle and make mistakes. In the past, her intense lyrics were the focal point, supported by sparse arrangements which gave them room to breathe. Now, her lyrics have found a worthy mirror in sprawling arrangements.
The final track off “Little Oblivions” is “Ziptie,” which directly confronts the sobering fact Baker seems to know all too well: that in order to heal, you have to want to heal. It’s not something other people can do for you, and it’s not something you can do halfheartedly. “Good God / When you gonna call it off?” she sings on the chorus. “Climb down off of the cross / And change your mind?”
It’s iconoclastic and bold, defying the idea that martyring yourself as a perpetually suffering artist is worthwhile. It’s maturity in song format, rejecting pain for the sake of itself and committing to growth. Suffering isn’t noble, but it isn’t shameful either. Nobody seems to know that as well as Baker.
Mirabella Miller SC ’23 is TSL’s music columnist and an English major from Portland, Oregon. She shows up to most events drinking a Yerba Mate.