“I can see myself inside your bloodshot eyes,” Julien Baker sings on her excellent third record, Little Oblivions. “Wondering if you can see yourself in mine.” It’s a moment of raw, bleary intimacy that gets to the heart of this 25-year-old Tennessean’s potent appeal. On two standout solo albums, and as a member of the indie supergroup Boygenius, with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, she’s established herself as one of the leading female singer-songwriters of her generation, both for her music’s muted grandeur and lyrics that seem to dive headlong into emotional chaos.
In 2019, Baker took a break from music to finish her undergraduate degree. But she’s emerged a much more proficient artist. After making her previous LPs mostly on guitar and piano, Baker recorded her latest, which she also produced, with a full band, creating a big, steely, momentous-feeling sound that’s much more pop-aware than anything she’s done.
The expansive music does nothing to dilute her lyrical directness. “Knocked out on a weekend/Would you hit me this hard if I were a boy?” she asks on the opener, “Hardline,” against waves of storm-born guitars. “See, I don’t need you to defend me/’Cause it’s just the sort of thing that I enjoy.” She concludes the track with a question that persists through each song that follows: “You say it’s not so cut and dry, it isn’t black and white/What if it’s all black, baby, all the time?”
Baker takes us through bars, parties, and cab rides as she navigates a winding path home, one painful night after another. Sobriety chips are abandoned on dressers, and blood results in scars. Drums weave in and out as she drops ominous lines that linger long after their arrival. “I was on a long spiral down,” she confesses on “Heatwave.” “But before I make it to the ground/I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck and kick the chair out.” As a songwriter, Baker seems to draw power from such darkness — like she’s walking out of a house that’s in flames, completely unscathed. Her resilience is her battle armor, and she wears it well.
Little Oblivions isn’t all blood and guts on the barroom floor. The record has its delicate, quieter moments, too, though they’re hardly any less emotionally stark. “I wish that I drank because of you and not only because of me,” she sings over subtle piano on the heartbreaking “Song in E.” “Then I could blame something painful enough not to make me look any more weak.” Her Boygenius bandmates guest on “Favor,” their backing vocals giving the somber words even more weight. “Who put me in your way to find/And what right had you not to let me die?”
What results is a fully realized artistic statement without a skippable track, even if a few songs trail off a bit toward the end — almost as if Baker knows the rush of cathartic energy has left everyone involved a little exhausted, including herself. And that’s just fine, because this is enough reality for a lifetime, let alone one record.