In 2015, when the young Tennessee singer and songwriter Julien Baker released her quietly lacerating debut album, “Sprained Ankle,” she arrived with an origin story that flashed the false promise of condensing her in just three loaded words: Christian, queer, sober.
This narrative had a built-in redemption arc — a reassuring comfort to anyone put off by the harrowing emotional content of a record with lines like, “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” But Baker was still a believer, having read enough radical theology to reconcile her Christianity and her sexuality. Her parents and her community had accepted her warmly when she came out at 17. And though she’d had early struggles with addiction, she had, that same year, committed herself to a life of sobriety. On her second album, “Turn Out the Lights” — released in 2017 when she was 22 — she presented herself as someone who had endured a very dark night but was now emerging for good on the other side, blinking into the dawn.
On her magnificent third album “Little Oblivions,” though, Baker is telling a new story, one without the safety net of those familiar beats. “A character of somebody’s invention, a martyr in another passion play,” she sings in a low voice on “Relative Fiction,” dismissing the succinct and confining image of her past. “I guess I don’t mind losing my conviction if it’s all relative fiction anyway.”
Shortly before she began writing “Little Oblivions,” Baker relapsed. She had also begun to bristle at her perceived role as a poster child of progressive Christianity, and question whether such a concept can even exist. “I don’t know that I would identify as a Christian person, even though I would still say that I’m a person of faith,” she told an interviewer recently. “I’ve just seen that institution wreak havoc in obvious and subtle ways in so many people’s lives, including my own.”
These parallel instabilities wind around each other in “Faith Healer,” one of the most affecting “Little Oblivions” songs, which swings in constant motion between hushed murmurs and sonorous catharsis. “Snake oil dealer,” Baker sings, her trembling voice hungry with want, “I’ll believe you if you make me feel something.” It’s never quite clear if she’s singing about religion or intoxication; the power of the song comes from its generous acknowledgment that both are different escape routes from the same human problems.
Since “Turn Out the Lights,” Baker also helped found the indie-rock supergroup boygenius with her contemporaries Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. All three artists had explored feelings and aesthetics of solitude; their self-titled EP and live show conjured an expansive togetherness. The experience of being in boygenius, Baker has said, influenced “Little Oblivions,” in the way it let her think beyond “the imaginary parameters” she had once placed upon her music — and realize how much she missed playing with other people in a band. (Baker had previously been a member of the emo group Forrister.)
Although she played all the instruments on “Little Oblivions” herself, she built out most of its arrangements so they could be performed with a full band onstage. This choice brings a new, sweeping dynamism to Baker’s music, and keeps “Little Oblivions” from feeling sonically repetitive, as her previous two albums sometimes could. While “Turn Out the Lights” all took place under the same drizzly sky, each song on “Little Oblivions” has its own specific weather. Tracks like the cathartic opener “Hardline” and the folky, forlorn “Favor” (with backing vocals from Bridgers and Dacus) feature elements previously unheard in Baker’s sparse soundscapes, like driving beats, layered guitars, and a whole, wondrous aurora borealis of electronic noise.
Still, a few of these compositions return to the familiar, transfixing power of Baker’s voice accompanied by just a single instrument. The piano-driven, Elliott Smith-esque “Song in E” is a haunting masterpiece — a plaintive wish that her emotional pain could be blamed on an external source rather than her internal turmoil. “Little Oblivions” proves that Baker has become a remarkably economical lyricist, able to distill complicated wisdom into a few finely crafted lines that are startling in their self-knowledge: “I wish you’d hurt me,” she sings to a loved one offering help. “It’s the mercy I can’t take.”
Here, as in many other moments on this record, Baker returns to a concept associated with Christian doctrine and warms it with her breath until it is pliable enough to be of use in her everyday life. Elsewhere, on “Relative Fiction,” she confesses with a palpable spiritual exhaustion, “I don’t need a savior, I need you to drive me home.” Baker’s music, as ever, is the work of a mind accustomed to pondering and fretting over grand moral questions. The voice of her songs is unrelentingly reflective to the point of being a little hard on itself, a blaring, high-wattage searchlight pointed inward.
On “Little Oblivions,” Baker emerges from those depths with some hard-won truths, but also plenty of lingering uncertainties. It was important for her, she has said, to end the album not with a neat, optimistic conclusion, as she did on “Turn Out the Lights.” So instead, “Little Oblivions” rings out with a vivid, echoing question that recalls the imagery of her past: “Good God, when are you gonna call it off, climb down off the cross and change your mind?” She offers no clear answer. Baker, liberatingly, is suspended in doubt, unable to be fixed in or reduced to any single identity, mood or state of being. How lucky to be eavesdropping on her still-ongoing process of becoming.