Little Oblivions – Julien Baker ★★★

2021Little OblivionsJulien Baker★★★63RockIndie Pop

On Julien Baker’s third record, Little Oblivions, she shifted from her indie, stripped down, vocal-focused sound to a more high-end, pop rock production style. I think the introduction of drums, more piano, and distant, colorful synth keys were a welcome addition here, and they add a little more depth to the mix compared to her mostly quiet and intimate past. 

The pop rock style that Baker is leaning towards though, caught me a little by surprise. It’s closer to the one that was prominent from 2005-2009 and again around 2012, when indie pop was shifting closer to the pop end of the spectrum. Generally, the style has been reserved for anthemic rock bands that were entering the second (or third) phases of their careers, and trying to claim a more commercial audience, like U2’s 2005 release, X&Ys by Coldplay, the Goo Goo Dolls releases in 2006 and 2010. 

The album this production reminds me most of is Codes and Keys by Death Cab for Cutie. Listen to the synths on “You’re a Tourist,” the drums on “Some Boys,” “Monday Morning,” etc. Those songs would fit pretty perfectly on Little Oblivions.  While sometimes corny, it’s a sound I like when done correctly, and has summer sunset vibes. My favorites on this record are “Hardline,”  a great opener; “Heatwave,” a cute, folky track; “Repeat” with an appropriately repeating synth; and Bloodshot, with a faster drum beat that’s a noticeable and welcome addition to the mix. Most songs here are solid though, and sound like they perfectly work together as a coherent and well-meshed album. 

My main criticism of the album, though, is that while I appreciate it’s more energetic than Baker’s first album, it isn’t nearly as emotional.  Her previous album, Turn Out The Lights, was a collection of good, slow, sad and emotional ballads that lacked musical depth. It was all guitar and piano, no drums, no real production or mixing… just some well written, heartfelt tunes that individually all worked, but as a package lacked a little bit of variety both in instrumentation and tempo. 

Little Oblivions, on the other hand, brings some more production in, but unfortunately, it again suffers as a package, with all the songs doing more or less the same thing. I think it actually lacks what the other album did really well with its stripped down sound. 

In other words, I think Little Oblivions would benefit from having 3-4 of the true, soft, emotional, building ballads that Baker had on her previous album, while Turn Out The Lights could have used a handful of the songs from here to add balance. 

Baker’s got a good voice, she’s a solid songwriter and can clearly shift her style a bit here or there, but, at least up to now, she hasn’t been able to pull it all together for a total album that’s enthralling from start to finish. 

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