With her 2015 debut “Sprained Ankle” — an album she’s said she made for her college friends — Julien Baker unexpectedly made a deep and instant impact with her stark songs, which combine beautiful melodies and her soaring voice with harrowing and often disturbing lyrics. Critics expended reams of verbiage on the Memphis-spawned Baker’s background (religious upbringing, substance abuse), but from the beginning her songs and singing transcended any backstory. Her spare sound became a bit more fleshed out with the follow-up, “Turn Out the Lights,” and even more so on the 2018 EP from Boygenius, the ironically Crosby, Stills & Nash-themed “supergroup” she formed with fellow bards Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus.
Impressive as all of those efforts are, Baker’s third full-length album, “Little Oblivians,” vaults her into a whole new league. Unlike her previous solo recordings, which were almost entirely vocal and guitar or keyboard, this one features her accompanied by a full band — except, surprisingly, that full band is almost all her, playing bass, drums, banjo, mandolin and multi-tracked backing vocals as well as her usual guitar and keyboards. She wrote all the songs, produced and even did the cover artwork; it’s basically a one-person effort, with the exception of unspecified “additional instrumentation” by engineer Calvin Lauber and (as on Bridgers’ “Punisher” album) a mini Boygenius reunion on “Favor.”
One-person bands are nothing new, but the truly gifted ones sound like a band, with a distinct personality on each instrument — see Stevie Wonder, Todd Rundgren and of course Prince. Although Baker doesn’t approach the instrumental virtuosity of those artists, that’s still the case here: There are some bonkers keyboard solos, heavy drumming and carefully multitracked vocals. But there are also pretty, atmospheric backdrops that at times have an ‘80s tinge and (she’ll probably hate this) almost sound like “Unforgettable Fire”-era U2, particularly on “Relative Fiction”; in other places it resembles the sonics of Perfume Genius’ “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” and other Blake Mills productions.
Although the more fleshed-out framework and her powerful melodies make her songs more approachable and less intense-seeming, they’re not at all: after a close inspection of the lyrics… well, damn. She has a knack for stinging opening lines, and nearly every song has one: “Beat myself until I’m bloody/ And I’ll give you a ringside seat”; “I miss the high, how it dulled the terror and the beauty”; “I can see myself your blood-shot eyes, wondering if you can see yourself in mine”; “Day-one [sobriety] chip on your dresser, get loaded at your house”; “We took the 40 down to visit the family/ And I told you the only kin I knew was who I could see from the gurney.” Some lyrics are so harsh that it almost feels cruel to reproduce them.
And then there’s “Song in E,” which might be the prettiest song she’s ever released (and also has a stinging opening line: “I wish that I drank because of you and not only because of me”). It starts off as a lovelorn ballad where she’s accompanied only by a slightly out of tune piano, but takes a turn toward the end: “Face down in the carpet, I wish you’d hurt me/ It’s the mercy I can’t take.” Her songs might have prettier frames, but the picture is just as intense.
It’s a rare artist who can create an album that you could put on and only occasionally notice the horrors lurking in its lyrics — and “Little Oblivions” proves more than ever that Julien Baker is a rare artist indeed.
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