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One Good Thing: The perfect album for spring 2021

Julien Baker’s brilliant Little Oblivions is about feeling doomed and looking for an escape.

Late Night with Seth Meyers - Season 8
Julien Baker plays “Hardline,” from her new album Little Oblivions, on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There’s a moment, two minutes and 40 seconds into “Ringside,” the seventh track on Julien Baker’s new album Little Oblivions, that made me realize just how much I’ve missed seeing live music.

“Ringside” details a relationship where one participant (whose perspective Baker sings from) has a dark and horrible self-destructive streak. It opens with the couplet “Beat myself until I’m bloody/ and I’ll give you a ringside seat,” an arresting image to start a song about how hard it can be to love someone when you’re in the depths of self-loathing and depression.

As the song continues, it builds to its peak at 2:40. “Nobody deserves a second chance,” Baker sings, “but I keep getting them.” And underneath “them,” a wall of sound rises, including keyboards, percussion, and guitar. It’s a big, sweeping moment that will surely be astonishingly effective when Baker performs it in concert.

It’s also so, so different from anything else Baker has recorded before. On her two previous albums — 2015’s Sprained Ankle and 2017’s Turn Out the Lights (one of the best albums of the 2010s) — Baker skewed toward the small and intimate. Her music explores intersections of queer identities, mental health issues, and faith, and her brooding, thoughtful lyrics often benefit from stripped-down production values that let her words do most of the talking.

In the years since Turn Out the Lights, however, Baker has turned most of her attention to boygenius (yes, all lower-case), the sad-girl supergroup she formed with Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers. The trio released a short album in 2018 and have remained key collaborators ever since. Baker and Dacus appeared on Bridgers’s “Graceland Too,” off her Grammy-nominated 2020 album Punisher; Bridgers and Dacus lend their talents to “Favor” on Little Oblivions.

But boygenius seems to have inspired Baker, beyond simply giving her the chance to work with two other amazing musicians. Joining forces with Dacus and Bridgers — both of whom have also opened up their sounds on their most recent albums — has surely pushed Baker even further toward sonic experimentation, resulting in a bigger, richer sound than she’s ever tried before.

Little Oblivions is proof positive that Baker’s expansion doesn’t cancel out what made her so good in the first place. The album pushes her production beyond stripped-down sound into new, exciting places, while maintaining the brutal lyrical honesty of her previous work. It’s the difference between someone quietly delivering the most devastating news you’ve ever heard and the endless wall of noise that springs up in your head when you hear that news.

Baker’s songs tend to center on people who cannot escape cycles of self-recrimination and self-punishment. They often take the form of apologies to a loved one who stubbornly refuses to give up on the singer, despite evidence they should probably just abandon all hope of real change.

Or, as she puts it in “Relative Fiction,” my favorite song off Little Oblivions:

‘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

What’s remarkable about the album isn’t only Baker’s push toward a richer soundscape but also that she plays nearly every instrument featured on the album, with minimal backing from anybody else. Baker was performing some of these songs in concert before Covid-19 shut down the world (here she is playing “Ringside” in London in 2019), but the fact Little Oblivions has arrived as the pandemic-necessitated quarantines finally seem to be ending feels significant to me somehow. After all, Baker taking on nearly every instrumental part on an entire album feels like the ultimate lockdown project, right? And the results were worth it.

But the loud intimacy of Little Oblivions strikes me as being as perfect for spring 2021 as the apocalyptic boa-constrictor hug of Bridgers’s Punisher was for summer 2020. So many of us have been stuck inside alone these many months, and some of us have been stuck inside with people we love but maybe occasionally need some space from. In that time, we’ve gotten to see new sides of them — and of ourselves — and those sides might not have been flattering.

Baker even nods toward this experience on “Ringside,” where the song’s ending neatly flips the second chances motif on its ear in a way that should feel too simplistic but instead feels devastating. “Nobody deserves a second chance,” she repeats, “but I keep giving them.” Being caught in a self-destructive spiral, after all, is a game two can play, especially when you’re codependent. And a whole year spent inside with the same person is nothing if not a breeding ground for codependency.

Now, finally, it’s time to step outside into a world that is big and loud and wide and to try to find a new balance. Some of our bruises will heal; some we will carry with us the rest of our lives. But the only way to figure what’s next is to move forward — and maybe try something new at long last.

Little Oblivions is available on all major music platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, and Bandcamp. You can also purchase it on CD or vinyl. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.