Baker safely expands her sound with mixed results on an underwhelming third album.
The first two albums of Julien Baker were sparse affairs. Minimalist indie-folk ballads that used the empty space around Baker as an instrument in itself, both records were best identified by their selected weapon to pair with the singer's voice - Sprained Ankle for its lone electric guitar, and Turn Out The Lights for its gentle expansion into piano balladry, a tastefully executed progression that hinted at a nuance in Baker which suggested greatness lay ahead for the Tennessee scribe.
Little Oblivions continues this sonic advancement as Baker expands her repertoire by introducing a full band sound, with keyboards, percussion and various additional instrumentation on display (all wielded by Baker herself and sole accompaniment Calvin Lauber), not to mention a noticeably polished mix and heightened level of production to boot - Little Oblivions is the crispest, cleanest sounding record in Baker's discography by a country mile.
It was always going to be a risk for Baker to lean so heavily into a fuller sound, not only in terms of the inevitable chance an artist takes when moving away from their traditional songwriting methods but in this case especially because of the danger of compromising a sublime vocal talent. Baker's voice was the undoubted highlight of her first two records - hushed yet expressive, with each word delivered in solemn prayer, the twenty five year old's vocals are the perfect channel for her wounded rhymes and the thought of them being lost in a busy mix was worrying.
Early indications thankfully dismissed these concerns as Baker delivered some of the most powerful vocal performances of her short career on the excellent cast of singles dropped in the lead up to Little Oblivions, and the full record doesn't disappoint from a vocal standpoint in its best moments. Whether it be the epic climax of opener 'Hardline''s final minute, the sweet simplicity of 'Song in E' and its brief recall of the minimalist arrangements in her early work, or the subtle harmonies in 'Favor' with accompaniment from her Boygenius bandmates Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, Baker's voice remains a highlight of each track on Little Oblivions, too often solely so.
Unfortunately, the issues with Little Oblivions perhaps lie more in its musical content and execution. At this point in her career, Baker seemed to be strapped to a rocket set for indie heaven, and expectations are bound to be flattened by the stagnant sound of the deeper cuts on the record, which alternate between pleasantly passable filler ('Heatwave', 'Ziptie') and draining tedium (pretty much anything that's not mentioned above and isn't 'Faith Healer') as Baker's vision of a fully realized indie rock band turns out to be surprisingly unimaginative.
With a basic and monotonous set of backing tracks letting her down on the likes of 'Crying Wolf', 'Ringside' and 'Highlight Reel', Baker recycles familiar meditations on substance abuse and mental health struggles which regrettably don't land with as much impact or grace when supported by lifeless drum loops as opposed to the affecting simplicity of Little Oblivions' predecessors. These lowlights are especially shocking in their averageness when contrasted with the vast array of songwriting talent in the indie folk scene today.
Perhaps it's unfair to line Baker up next to her bandmate and friend Bridgers, but the comparison is plainly there for all to see so it may as well be addressed - Bridgers' transformation into existential millennial prophet last year put a spotlight (however unfairly) on Baker to deliver a third record that at the very least displays consistent growth in terms of songwriting and scope. Nobody is asking for Punisher, but the hope is that three albums in Baker would refine her sound and deliver something close to sounding like a distinct piece of her. Sadly, Little Oblivions actually feels regressive with its broadly developed big band sound exposing a lack of true invention on Baker's part and highlighting inconsistencies in her songcraft, rather than coming across as an organic evolution or natural progression for the young American.
In the final minutes of 'Ziptie' as Little Oblivions crawls to a close, Baker tiredly quips "I was disappointed to find out how much / Everybody looks like me" and it makes for an unwittingly suitable note to end on, with Baker on course to find herself awash in a sea of decent yet anonymous indie singer-songwriters should she continue down the colourless path she sets for herself on her underwhelming third outing.
There's still 'Hardline' and 'Favor' to suggest a spark of brilliance in Julien Baker just waiting to fully surface, but if I know one thing for sure it's that the next time a Baker release rolls around, I'll be a little less interested to find out.
5.5 / C-
Best Tracks: 'Hardline'/'Favor'
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