This post comes to us from Bailey Preib:

If I could describe Julien Baker in one word, it would be ambivalent. Her latest album, Little Oblivions, is oozing with enough vulnerable self-examination to make a therapist blush. Julien lures her listeners in with dreamy synths and siren vocals that crescendo into ballads. She seems convinced her repeated failures will leave more than herself behind in the wake. On “Ringside” Julien croons, “So you could either watch me drown / or try to save me while I drag you down.”

Such candid lyricism might shock new listeners unfamiliar with Julien’s previous work, like looking at a stranger in a mirror. Unlike her first two albums, Little Oblivions displays a wide range of instruments almost all played by Julien on the record. Instead of overpowering her, they add emotional depth and intrigue. “Relative Fiction” and “Repeat” are dance-inducing, while “Song in E” feels like seeing a beloved friend after a long time apart (who happens to be Julien Baker). Julien is methodical about her lyrics, a master poet with instrumental accompaniment. At times, her voice cascades in and out, creating a wave of indecipherability. The lyrics are more than worth reading but no longer seem to chain Julien down, the way her minimal style previously did. Performing this album live with bandmates will be a major growth in letting go of control.

The young Tennessee artist doesn’t deceive herself on “Relative Fiction,” announcing, “I won’t bother telling you I’m sorry / For something that I’m gonna do again.” On “Crying Wolf,” Julien is giving in to her vices: “I’m not crying wolf / I’m out here looking for them.” Baker has struggled with substance addiction and became sober at a young age. After holding herself up to an inhuman ideal of piety, Julien relapsed in 2018 after touring with supergroup boygenius.

This album is a rebirth for the 25-year-old, coming to terms with not living up to her own standards and, ultimately, realizing that is all right. In “Relative Fiction” she deconstructs her unattainable ideologies: “Now I can finally be okay in not the way I thought I should.” It brings to mind a recent post by Tim Keller, “Your future self will always see your present self as unwise and immature. That means you are currently a fool right now.” But Julien is just wise enough to realize it and gives herself some grace along the way.

A self-professed Christian, Julien alludes to her faith in all her albums. She doesn’t shy away from the doubt and pain it brings, yet also feels the tension and expectation of that label. Julien recently said that she has distanced herself from organized religion and the immense harm it has done. Has Baker lost her faith? Again, in “Relative Fiction” it might appear so: “I’ve got no business praying, / I’m finished being good.” But I’d argue otherwise.

The album cover reproduces an oil painting of Baker on a chair with a wolf stalking behind her and the words “There is no glory in love, Only the Gore of Our Hearts” scrawled in handwritten script. Love can be painful, a kind of fragility sometimes unwillingly given. At times, it’s hard to decipher if Julien is singing about relationships or addictions. I’m not sure we need to know. Baker doesn’t seem interested in giving answers or pithy sayings to ease our grief. If anything, she wants us to look at it. She tells us her knowledge, her lived experience, in vivid detail, and she leaves the rest for us to wade through.

What are these little oblivions? The album opens with the track “Hardline” and the lyrics, “Blacked out on a weekday, / Still something I’m trying to avoid.” The third track “Faith Healer” goes on, “I miss it high, how it dulled the terror and the beauty / Now I see everything in startling intensity.” The spectrum limits have been defined: Love, beauty, vulnerability, and pain on one end, and numbness, shallowness, and oblivion on the other. Like a pendulum stuck in an endless repeat, Baker swings between the two. When the emotions are too raw, it’s best to dull them a little, so long as you don’t fall completely into the void.

Sometimes the gore wins out. We look for escape, release. We spend an hour or two scrolling mindlessly or binge-watching something with little substance. We put our headphones in and tune out reality. We look to the “faith healer,” the “snake oil dealer,” then to poison when it doesn’t work. We wake up ashamed, destined to repeat the same events despite our intentions, until we realize we do what we don’t want to do. Julien knows she doesn’t deserve it: love, forgiveness, redemption. In “Ringside” she sings, “Nobody deserves a second chance, / But honey, I keep getting them.” The devastation cuts deep in “Song in E”: “I wish that I drank / Because of you and not only because of me … I’d say ‘Give me no sympathy.’ / It’s the mercy I can’t take.” Only someone truly aware of their state, their brokenness and weakness, could speak with such clarity. She knows the burden of mercy.

But those three things are exactly what Julien gets. Her friends haven’t deserted her, as evident in the song “Favor.” She hasn’t kicked the chair out. Heck, Julien has even put the bottle down since 2019 and been in recovery. She doesn’t seem able to escape God’s good grace. Julien may fall back into relapse. She will hurt someone and be hurt by someone again. She will fail and disappoint herself. There will be terror with the beauty, gore with the love.

But Julien doesn’t have to be perfect; she can’t be. There is an ease for her tension, a step-by-step acceptance of this truth. This knowledge doesn’t excuse our culpability or efforts to improve; it just helps us to be picked up again and stand when we knock ourselves down. We must learn to hold the contradiction of aiming for perfection yet knowing we will not achieve it in our hands. There is an innate whisper in us all that we were made to be more, that something is off. We can choose to ignore it and figure out a way to drown out the whisper when it seems unachievable by our own efforts. Or, we can keep reaching for it with the hope it will one day be handed to us. Either way we will fail, but it is the beauty of grace that makes the difference.

The last words of the album appear in “Ziptie”: “Good God, / When’re you gonna call it off, / Climb down off of the cross / And change your mind?” He won’t. Julien knows he won’t, despite our repeated failures. And this small hope might just be what keeps us from falling, or staying, in our own daily little oblivions.