That’s Julien with an E. Not Julian with an A. Julien Baker is a 25 year old singer songwriter from Tennessee and she has been part of a loose collective called Boygenius which consists of her along with Lucy Davis and Phoebe Bridgers. They released a six track EP in 2018.
An advantage of growing up in a strictly Christian family was shown when Julien Baker revelled against her upbringing by listening to Green Day, My Chemical Romance and Death Cab For Cutie. She later progressed onto hardcore, metalcore and screamo (an aggressive form of emo). She has now released three solo albums, “Sprained Ankle” in 2015, “Turn Out The Lights” in 2017 and “Little Oblivions” which was released last week, on February 26th.
Whereas previous albums were pared back with a dominant acoustic guitar or piano, “Little Oblivions” has more of a full band sound. Julien Baker plays most of the instruments herself: guitar, bass, drums, piano, mandolin, banjo and synthesiser.
As a teenager, Julien Baker struggled with substance abuse. She was jolted into some brutally honest self examination when she read an interview she had given in GQ magazine in which she falsely claimed to be sober. Realising that she had never really confronted the underlying reasons for her earlier addiction, she stopped touring in the middle of 2019 and finished a College course at Middle Tennessee State University, studying literature and music. Graduating at the end of 2019, she started recording “Little Oblivions” immediately, in Memphis.
Moments of self-realisation allowed her to understand more about her own feelings. She says that when she writes about characteristics she despises in other people, she is just projecting her own faults onto other people. Describing her new album, she quotes Wordsworth: “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”. Thus her new album deals with, as she says “alcoholism, heartache and re-evaluating your ego”.
The opening track “Hardline” is musically intense with synthesiser and drums to the fore. The lyrics are full of self hatred. She is using again and she realises that she gets some perverse satisfaction from the destruction she causes. Between verses, the music explodes into anger and frustration. It’s a sensational, hard hitting start to the album.
The intensity doesn’t let up in the second track, “Heatwave”; if anything it increases. She is stuck in traffic and sees a car explode. She embraces the horror and extrapolates to see it everywhere. I’m assuming that the “shuddering thought” that watching people die in an exploding car would make her “late for work” is part of the self loathing that is prevalent on the album.
Track 3 on the album was a single, released in October 2020 called “Faith Healer”. She understands that an addict understands the harm that the substance is causing whilst simultaneously craving it.
“Favor” features Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus on backing vocals. The song relates a journey back to her home town to see friends and family. Whilst meeting up, she begins to cry and feels bad for being manipulative. Again, she examines her own beliefs and place in the world. “Who put me in your way to find. And what right had you not to let me die?“
“Song In E” is more stripped back than most of the rest of the album. Accompanying herself on piano, she sings so close to the microphone that you can hear the detail of every emotion pouring out of her. She doesn’t appreciate sympathy – she would prefer to be shouted at so that she can fulfill her self image of being evil.
It’s all pretty grim, lyrically. Sonically, the instrumentation is always interesting and Julien Baker’s voice is melodic and sympathetic. I find that it’s an easy album to half listen to and a difficult album to immerse myself in. It’s much more “On The Beach” than “X&Y“.
The sheer volume of intense, beautiful, stimulating and fulfilling music that is being released at the moment is staggering.