The highest value in Julien Baker’s music is often said to be her emotional depth – ‘devastating’ is a term thrown lazily at it as a catch all way to describe its valor. Propped up by the success of boygenius, Baker’s 3rd record is ambitious and adventurous, although it never quite moves beyond a flat plane, both in dynamism and sonic invention. That’s certainly not a bad thing, and it speaks to Baker’s focus on the here and now.
The record is served remarkably well when paired next to a printout of its lyrics. Baker sings quickly and a visual of its lyrics helps to keep up with all the content. The other reason is that Baker’s album proudly boasts a sense of literalism. She frequently describes events in narrative fashion, one of her greatest strengths as a writer. The emotional proximity that writers latch onto emanates from Baker’s narrative structure; we are within the scene as opposed to sitting outside of it. When Baker does pull the microscope away, she often delivers her emotional haymakers, and this oscillation is an interesting seesaw.
Song in E is an emblematic exercise on Little Oblivions, and a decisive song when it comes to deliberating on the status of Baker’s 3rd work. For some, the literalism of emotional catharsis will stand as a triumph; pull any quote from this song and you’ll have something that appears etched in humanity. In other ways, the song feels overly enraptured by miserabilism. When everything is sad, nothing calls attention to itself as sad, and after near of full record of directness and pointed emotion, it’s difficult to really feel the emotional weight as emotional weight.Musical emotion is transcendent, and I can’t help but feel that such rigorous focus on the particulars of heavy sadness misses the sublime communication of that raw feeling.
Also of note is Baker’s voice, a thick rasp that feels stretched out over mountains when it is at its best. Cold and dry, it’s wrapped around some really interesting instrumentation – glitchy drumbeats, electronic groans, and disquieting guitars (including many reverse delays). I love when Baker’s record gets creepy, both for its darkness and its departure from melancholy. The albums final two tracks do this best, Baker’s crooning just a piece of the maze – a maze which is genuinely dizzying, emotion imparted by musicality in addition to the directness that dominates Baker’s work.
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