The fabulous Punisher album made Phoebe Bridgers one of the breakout acts of last year, so it stands to reason that her occasional bandmate would be primed to do something similar in 2021. Tennessee’s Julien Baker released a beautiful EP in 2018 as one-third of Boygenius, a collaboration with Bridgers and their fellow singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus. As a solo artist, across her previous two albums Baker has been all about the lyrics, with minimal backing accompanying her tortured, startlingly open confessionals. The gay daughter of evangelical Christians, wrestling with her religious beliefs and struggling with sobriety following substance abuse in her teens, naturally has plenty to sing about.
On Little Oblivions, the forensic self-examination is still a major element – “Then when I sang a horrible drunken parade of my worst thoughts/I’d say, ‘Give me no sympathy,’” she sings on the bleak piano ballad Song in E – but the music is a whole new experience. It’s an expansive sound, muscular with punchy drums on Highlight Reel, dominated by the powerful chug of an electric guitar on the immediate standout, Ringside.
The opener, Hardline, begins with an enormous blast of organ – a nod to her churchy past, perhaps, while she sings about grim times under the influence and suggests she “Start asking for forgiveness in advance/For all the future things I will destroy.” The addition of cavernous drums and guitar bring about a huge crescendo. Favor, featuring her Boygenius cohorts, is equally grandiose. This time, those big emotions have a backdrop to match.