The other day, I came across a quote from Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous on my Twitter feed, “Sometimes being offered tenderness feels like the very proof that you’ve been ruined.” It is in this tension between devotion and burden that one can find Julien Baker’s new record, Little Oblivions, released on February 26 with Matador Records. The Memphis-based singer-songwriter has always waded through the black seas of addiction and self-loathing in her songs, armed with nothing more than an electric guitar and her soaring voice. In her latest release, Baker ditches the sparse getup and adopts a bigger, more experimental sound, yet she still fundamentally turns to the same questions of love, faith, and redemption. Perhaps this is why Baker may well have found her loudest, most searing answer yet in Little Oblivions.
It is difficult to say I enjoyed the record, because it is difficult to sit through 42 minutes of Baker’s painfully rigorous self-excoriation and come out of it with anything resembling enjoyment. The record wears you down with its relentless nihilism, peddling in devastating turns of phrase that unsettle you well after you listen to it. At its heart, Baker wants you to believe that she is a bad person—within a minute of “Hardline,” the organ-infused album opener, she sings about “asking for forgiveness in advance/ for all the future things [she] will destroy.”
It is easy and even truthful to pinpoint this pessimism, as many reviewers have done, to Baker’s own struggles with an addiction relapse in 2019. But that is too limiting a view—and one that, in my opinion, reproduces the gendered logic that women can only make confessional music, or that only women can make confessional music. Instead, Baker’s ceaseless self-examination offers a cipher for the ways we all surrender to the loud, wailing voices in our heads that demand nothing less than perfection from us. True to the title of the record, we all make up our “little oblivions” to escape from our intrusive thoughts, whether that be in addiction, in faith, or in another person. As Baker sings in “Faith Healer,” “I’ll believe in you if you make me feel something”—even if that something may careen towards self-destruction.
Slowly, the record unfurls its headline question—how can you allow yourself to be loved when you are steeped in intense self-loathing? Love, to Baker, is no saccharine matter. It is excruciating; it makes you feel like you take up more space in the world than you deserve. As she screams out in desperation over a shuffling drumbeat at the end of “Bloodshot” (my favorite track of the record), “there is no glory in love.” This interrogation hits the listener hard, especially in this strange world we have come to inhabit in the midst of a pandemic when the distances between us seem bigger than ever. Is it any wonder that Baker asks for a blank slate, for an exoneration from the people around her? Is it any wonder that she asks on “Favor”: “Who put me/ in your way to find?” To paraphrase Vuong, to be loved is the very proof of ruin for Baker.
At the end of the day, what does it mean to be good? What does it mean to keep on getting second chances when you believe yourself to be broken? There is a line on “Relative Fiction” that is perhaps the closest thing to resolution on the record—“I’m finished being good./ Now I can finally be okay./ And not the way I thought I should.” In an interview with Vulture, Baker talks about how reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden made her realize that perfection is impossible, and that goodness does not lie in a continuum that tends towards perfection. With this lens, it becomes crystal clear that the emotional shipwrecks that litter this record are not proof of brokenness. For all its insistent self-criticism, Little Oblivions makes you believe that it is good enough to keep on living, to plough through the sirens in your head and make it to the end of the day. As the poet Hanif Abdurraqib writes in his essay on the record, “How lucky to still be living, even in our own mess.” There is no timelier reminder than that.