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Julien Baker: Little Oblivions - First Instincts Review

First Instincts is a series of reviews where I listen to an album for the first time ever, and note my initial thoughts as I listen. These are my unfiltered reactions upon hearing the project for the first time in full. No skips, no replays, just my first instincts.

Edit (26/03/2021): We were lucky enough to chat to Julien about Little Oblivions and discuss each track on the album! Click here to listen to her walk us through her wonderful record.

Julien Baker is one of the greatest songwriters of our time.

She broke through with 2015's Sprained Ankle, one of my favourite albums of the 2010s - an intimate folk album of beautifully personal songs. It was followed up with 2017's Turn Out The Lights and the boygenius project with fellow powerhouses Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers. Her newest album Little Oblivions has been described as a departure from these, being her first album recorded with a full band. The record is entirely self produced by Baker, and all instruments are performed by her too. In a series of candid interview promoting the album, she's discussed her new songs' relationship to her personal growth, struggles with sobriety, and a difficult 2019.

The pre-release singles from the album suggest a bold new direction for Baker, with the full-band sound reminiscent of her influences in Audioslave and The National, with the beautifully lacerating lyrics that she's known for. Going in, I'm very excited to hear how the full band sound is developed, and will be listening intently for the wonderful lyrics that I adore so much on her previous releases.

1. Hardline

The second single from the album. A bold choice of opener, and the song that sounded the furthest removed from her previous releases out of the singles. The strings throughout the first verse are stunning, and the way the guitar and drums enter as Julien's voice breaks is incredible. The instrumental break after the first verse is phenomenal, it took me really off guard on the first listen. Julien described this one as "a confession booth song", and it really is with some of the most intense lyrics I've ever heard her sing. The opening to the second verse is brutal. "What if its all black, baby, all the time?" The swell in the outro sequence is incredible. I'm excited for what comes next as we enter the unknown...

2. Heatwave

The acoustic rhythm and lead guitar is stunning as an intro, it reminds me of something I can't place, maybe something from Green by R.E.M.? The opening verse is breathtaking. Ooh, that instrumental break is amazing. The synth sound is just so nice. Beautiful harmonies in the second verse too - such gorgeous sounds over such chilling words. The vocal effect in the chorus is incredible. God, this is dark. Short and sweet, I wish I could immediately replay this one. An early favourite.

3. Faith Healer

The lead single. Absolutely gorgeous guitar tone that reminds me a little of Frightened Rabbit's Nitrous Gas. The opening lyrics are beautiful. The pianos in the background sound positively angelic. We're still in dark lyrical waters, but with brighter instrumentation. The lyrical content of this one is a pretty intense look at her journey of addiction and recovery. Similar in structure to Heatwave, but that's not a bad thing. We're three for three on great songs so far.

4. Relative Fiction

"Racing the rain to the ground floor" is such a beautiful image. This one sounds so beautiful, the bass on this album is especially great. Whoa, that chorus. "'Cause if I didn't have a mean bone in my body I'd find some other way to cause you pain / I won't bother telling you I'm sorry for something that I'm gonna do again". Julien's described this one as a ruthless evaluation of the image of herself that she's cultivated. These are my favourite lyrics of the album so far. The way everything drops out in the second verse before the outro is stunning. "I've got no business praying, I've finished being good". I don't want this song to end. I've not had a song make me well up on one listen for a long time until now.

5. Crying Wolf

A gentler start after the intensity of Relative Fiction. The pacing of the album has been really good so far. The piano on this is stunning, and reminds me of earlier tracks such as Claws in your Back. The guitar textures in this are stunning. The way the harmonies build after the first chorus is heavenly. So far, this is the song that sounds the most like Turn out the Lights-era Julien, somewhere between Televangelist and Everything To Help You Sleep. The metaphor of wolves as addiction is a powerful one, and puts the album cover in a new context. Beautiful song.

6. Bloodshot

Oh, those drums! I was initially hesitant about the idea of full-band Julien after how beautiful her first two albums were in their sparseness, but I now realise I was a fool for thinking that, I'm fully converted. The introduction to this song is incredible. This album is a beautiful but challenging listen so far, some of the lyrics are the darkest she's ever delved. The chorus is amazing here. "There's no glory in love, only the gore of our hearts". This song is absolutely perfect following Crying Wolf. I can imagine this one being showstopping when live gigs become possible again. "Take me and tear me apart". Over too soon - an immediate favourite.

7. Ringside

The drum machine in this one is a nice touch. The guitar tone is beautiful too. I know she'd played this one live before release, but this is the first I'm hearing it. She's described this song as being about destructive coping mechanisms for her anxiety and OCD. I had to pause typing for a moment there: the "Jesus can you help me now" moment was incredible. The chorus is probably my favourite on the album so far. I can relate a lot to the chorus lyrics, I wish I could have heard this song when I was 18. "Nobody deserves a second chance/but honey I keep getting them" is an amazing line.

8. Favor

We're on a roll of incredible songs. The third single, and probably my favourite of the pre-released tracks. The electric guitars in the intro are ethereal. I can't stress enough how great the bass and drums sound on this album. The way the vocals break in the chorus with the boygenius harmonies are absolutely stunning. I think I fell in love with this song the moment the post-chorus bridge hit. The second verse about the moth is devastating. This is another one that's going to hit hard live, especially that second chorus. "It doesn't feel too bad, but it doesn't feel too good either". The final verse is harrowing. "What right had you to let me die?" This song feels like a more learned sequel to Rejoice and Claws in your Back, with some of the best instrumentation yet. The electric guitar in the outro over the gentle fingerpicked acoustic guitar is one of my favourite moments on the album thus far. The production has been nothing short of amazing.

9. Song in E

Such a gorgeous piano intro with some really unusual chords. This one was known as Mercy when played live. This is my first time hearing it though. In the context of the album, this one is devastating, especially after having read interviews about her struggles with sobriety. This is the most sparse song yet on the album and it's all the better for it. Whoa, the bass that comes in is incredible. "It's the mercy I can't take" is a breathtaking refrain. The shortest song yet, another one I wish I could immediately replay. That was incredible.

10. Repeat

Absolutely stunning introduction. Those piano chords sound so heavenly, but the guitar behind them sounds so sinister. The flanger effect is chilling. Julien's ability to build suspense is undervalued. The plucked string effect in the break is beautiful. It keeps feeling like we're building to something explosive. "Say I miss you like a mantra 'til I forget what it means" is an amazing line. HERE WE GO! The drums! This feels like a nightmare in the best way. God, this is intense. The way the vocals break off toward the end is amazing, and we're left with the choir and echoes of distorted guitar. Wow.

11. Highlight Reel

The electronic drum build at the start is phenomenal. I never expected I'd hear Julien over such a propulsive beat, but I love it. So many songs on this album have left me absolutely emotionally winded. This one reminds me of Appointments from Turn out the Lights in a way. This is another uncannily relatable song, about panic attacks and overthinking your flaws in the aftermath. "You can tell me how much was a lie, I guess that's for me to decide". This is incredibly cathartic, an immediate contender for favourite track on the album. The bass and piano at the end is incredible. How can you possibly follow that up?!

12. Ziptie

Final track, let's go! I'm still stunned from how amazing Highlight Reel was. I love the piano chords, it certainly feels like a closing track so far in the same vein that Claws in your Back was. The lyrics about bars remind me of Relative Fiction, I wonder if that was an intentional callback. The chorus is gorgeous; some of the lyrics on this album suggest if not a crisis of faith, then a change in understanding of it. Listening to her as an ex-devout Christian is really interesting. The backing vocals in this are beautiful. The imagery of interrupting the Crucifixion is something else. This is heartwrenching stuff. I wonder if the piano refrain was meant to sound like a hospital machine or not.

Little Oblivions is not an easy listen, but a powerful one. It's also far more than just "Julien Baker With Drums", as some expected. Her songwriting has reached new heights by plumbing new depths, with some of the darkest material shining light on her sharpest writing yet. This is a different beast from Turn out the Lights and Sprained Ankle, but with the same razor-sharp penmanship and heartrending vocals. The introduction of a full band allows her powerful performances to take centre stage, creating the most beautiful moments of her career.

For some songwriters, having one fantastic album would be a great achievement. With Little Oblivions, Julien Baker has a third masterpiece under her belt, and her greatest body of work yet.

Standout tracks: Highlight Reel, Relative Fiction, Song in E, Favor

Key lyric: All my greatest fears turn out to be the gift of prophecy.

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