Review: Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

In Greek mythology, there is a river in the Underworld called the River Lethe, which was said to bring forgetfulness to those who drank from it. John Milton wrote about it in Paradise Lost and called it “Lethe, the river of oblivion.” In Little Oblivions, Julien Baker makes the same comparison, but she uses a few more words (and instruments) to do it.

You can buy or stream Little Oblivions on Apple Music.

This time around, Julien starts her story with a relapse, which she talks about in “Hardline”, the second single. The album moves quickly, not pausing for reflection so much, like her past albums have. When I first added Little Oblivions to my most anticipated, we only had “Faith Healer”, a song about church trauma, in a sense, but when wrapped into the album as a whole, it’s more about the idea of searching for a solution. 

I’ve seen my fair share of people who claim they can heal, and maybe when I was younger, I thought it was a feasible idea because it was a normalcy in my religious life. But as years passed and people in my life didn’t receive the healing I thought they deserved, or things generally didn’t turn out the way these (obviously fallible) humans said they would, this aspect of faith began to lose its luster for me. And yet. I understand Julien’s desperation in “Faith Healer” probably better than a lot of folks who have found solace in her music. She longs to believe the way she used to, and so do I.

As a person who deals with depression and anxiety from things in the past that shook me when I was too young to be shaken, the question that Julien asks in “Favor” hit me deeply, because I saw myself: “How long do I have until I’ve spent everyone’s goodwill?” We know our hurts affect those around us, and it’s so hard to get out of our own way. I guess that’s why Julien writes songs about it.

I could write forever on each one of these songs that Julien has offered up, and as I finish typing these paragraphs I’m sitting in my own church parking lot, which I feel is symbolic in some strange way. Every one hit me deeply in places I hadn’t expected. In the final track, when she sings, “Good God / When You gonna call it off? / Climb down off of the cross / And change your mind” I feel like Julien is talking to God about herself.

We have the obvious biblical and religious allusions and implications of Christ freeing Himself from the cross at face value, but I feel like Julien is asking to be free of her cross. The religious upbringing, the lack of acceptance across the board in church, the struggles with addiction — it’s all tied together. It seems like Julien feels she’s been ziptied to this cross and wants out. 

Julien has opened herself here, adding more instruments than we’ve ever seen from her — and she played everything herself. The sheer talent she holds is incredible. She has given us three albums that are pretty close to perfect in a short timespan. What takes many artists decades to accomplish has taken Julien Baker, in a professional sense, six years.

But in a personal sense, Julien begs for forgetfulness. She longs to leave her darkest nights in the past, but she just can’t stop singing about them. It’s like she sits at the mouth of the River Lethe, filling up her cup again and again, only to be met with disappointment. These things stay with her, and so they stay with us.

by Nadia Alves

kiel_hauckNadia Alves has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.

Most Anticipated of 2021: Julien Baker Brings Healing

Phoebe Bridgers gave me my album of 2020, so her friend Julien Baker has some shoes to fill with Little Oblivions, slated for February 26th. Her gentle instrumentation and grating lyricism in the first single, “Faith Healer” is a great first taste of what we can expect from her third studio album. She plays almost every instrument this time around and I’m interested in hearing her perspective with a richer sound.

Having recently been thrown into an unexpected time of loss, I’m excited for the balm I know Julien’s album will be. Her juxtaposition of religion and reality has always been grounding and a good reminder that it will get better, whatever “better” ends up meaning.

Her music, while deeply personal for her, has been a great source of what I think of as “responsible escapism” — the idea that leaning into media and art that that highlights our emotional state is paramount to healing.

by Nadia Alves

kiel_hauckNadia Alves has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.

Review: Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

If you frequent this website, you’re aware of our approach to music criticism. We view it as more of a dialogue – toeing the line between flag-waving fandom and unbiased, nuanced observation. Call it critique with a heart. This review will not abide by this principle. It, in fact, cannot.

I make this disclaimer because Julien Baker’s new album Turn Out the Lights is deeply meaningful to me. Maybe more so than any recent release I can remember. Over the next 900 words, I’m going to tell you why.

You can buy Turn Out the Lights on iTunes.

Like many others, I discovered Baker’s debut, Sprained Ankle via word of mouth. That album became a refuge of sorts. When hearing Baker’s fragile voice atop her guitar, it’s hard not to visualize her pain. Those songs are poignant in their specificity, yet universal enough to find your own story within. So often in life, we feel like we have to fight our battles alone. Sprained Ankle became a safe place to process my own demons and feel solace with someone in the midst of their own fight.

I was not alone in my experience. Since that release, Baker’s profile has risen, and thus, so did the anticipation for her follow up. Turn Out the Lights expands on Sprained Ankle’s outlines in nearly every way. No longer alone with her guitar, Turn Out the Lights finds new and interesting arrangements, including piano and strings. These new elements open doors for Baker to explore painful themes in a way that feels as authentic as anything you’re likely to hear this year.

Turn Out the Lights lives in the moments right after the ugly cry, as you gather yourself and decide whether to give up or push onward. It is unapologetic in its honesty – a trait that will hit close to home for many, and potentially alarm some others. No matter. Turn Out the Lights may not be for everyone, but for those willing to journey along through the mire with Baker, the discomfort is worth it.

I knew from the moment I heard lead single “Appointments” that this release would be more than just another album to me. This summer, my therapist moved away. If you’ve ever been through therapy, you know how upended your whole becomes as you process the idea of starting from scratch with someone new. Two months into my refusal to try again, Baker’s line of, “Suggest that I talk to somebody again / That knows how to help me get better / Until then I should just try not to miss any more appointments” hit home in a very real way.

I’d venture to say that anyone who has battled with depression would find a multitude of moments like these on Turn Out the Lights. Not to mention those who struggle with addiction, those who question their faith, those living in the aftermath of a failed relationship, or just about anyone working through pain in their lives. Baker’s knack for translating her trials into songs that feel so universal is nearly unmatched.

Moments that force my own deep personal reflection come on tracks like “Happy to Be Here” as Baker belts, “Well I heard there’s a fix for everything / Then why, then why, then why / Then why not me?” or on “Shadowboxing” when she sings, “You can’t even imagine how badly it hurts just to think sometimes”. These moments of painful solidarity bring the slightest hint of hope. Hope that we’re not alone in this struggle and that someone else is there. Baker tugs at this notion on “Hurt Less” with the closing lines, “As long as you’re not tired yet of talking / It helps to make it hurt less”.

I often find it hard to share the deepness of my struggle with depression. In my attempts to verbalize my thoughts, I can pass that pain along to a loved one unwittingly. It’s difficult to talk about the darkness without casting it onto someone else, which is why those fleeting moments when we can safely confide are so precious. It’s also why the album’s closer, “Claws in Your Back”, might be the most painful, personal and powerful song I’ve ever heard.

It’s painful because it fearlessly tackles thoughts of suicide and the terror of sharing those thoughts out loud. “Pump the vitals out of my wrist / ‘Cause I’m conducting an experiment on how it feels to die / Or stay alive”, Baker’s broken voice rattles out atop her haunting piano. It’s personal because it captures the private struggle of depression, with Baker singing, “So try to stay calm, ‘cause nobody knows / The violent partner you carry around / With claws in your back, ripping your clothes / And listing your failures out loud”.

But more than anything, it’s powerful because, like everyone who fights this battle, Baker must choose to live with “the sickness you made”, declaring on the album’s final, chill-inducing lines, “I take it all back / I changed my mind / I wanted to stay”. The beauty of her cries vocalize the will it takes to fight for another day. It’s the kind of beautiful that only music can convey. And it’s the reason we listen. It’s the reason I write. It’s the reason this website exists.

I could tell you about the songwriting growth exhibited by Baker on Turn Out the Lights, or the powerful production and purposeful arrangements that make it one of the year’s best albums. But ultimately, I want to tell you to find the music that speaks your language, shares your fears and speaks to your soul. Cling to it and listen to it as often as you can. Because these moments are the reason we listen at all. Maybe Turn Out the Lights is that for you, as it is for me. But if not, keep listening, keep searching and keep fighting. You don’t have to do it alone.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Julien Baker Releases Music Video for “Turn Out the Lights”

Just a mere two weeks away from her highly anticipated sophomore record Turn Out the Lights, Julien Baker has released a new music video for the album’s title track. “Turn Out the Lights” features a slow build toward its emotional, swirling ending, much like the album’s first single, “Appointments”.

Only 21 years old, Baker has quickly become masterful at emotive depictions of depression, loneliness and a search for hope. On her latest track, she searches for the courage to battle her demons alone, crying out, “When I turn out the lights / There’s no one left between myself and me”. Take a look at the video below:

All of the feels, right? You can preorder Turn Out the Lights at Matador Records’ online store. Are you excited for the new album? Share in the replies!

Posted by Kiel Hauck