Driving long, repetitive highway distances has become synonymous with my relationship with singer-songwriter Julien Baker’s music. The first time I heard Sprained Ankle, I was on my way from Cleveland suburbia to Toledo. Following the release of Turn Out the Lights, I decided on a whim to day-trip to St. Louis to catch her at The Pangeant. At that time that was the closest I could get to someone that, from listening to their music, is dealing with similar internal struggles. The trips were taken for different reasons but both were taken with the initial premise I posed to myself: What if I didn’t return?
When I listen to Baker’s music, these hypothetical “what-ifs” very much so become blips in my head that won’t go away if they’re ignored. On the cover of the vinyl booklet insert for Little Oblivions, chicken-scratch hand-writing spells out, “I wanna be good so bad/What if there’s no such thing?” Personal scribbles and sketches appear throughout. These drawings seem to be symbolic of mental struggles, or the problems that we can’t see. (Lines throughout the album such as the leading one — “Blacked out on a weekday” — and “it takes two kinds of pills to unclench my fists” reinforce this.) A spiraling staircase stretching from a smoking figure’s waist to their head possibly depicts the struggle between love and intellect. On the page for “Repeat,” a person’s head is replaced by a piece of wood being split in two by an ax. When we are letdown or face rejection, that’s often what it might feel like inside, in our heads and in our hears. That’s something that we when we’re faced with rejection or our dreams are dashed. On the final page of the insert is along-haired person about to cut off their tongue is being looked down upon from behind by an eerie demon. These are unsettling images, ones that present themselves as questions about the 12-track album and what it’s making you feel.
Baker’s previous albums offer the listener a pure face-slapping revelation that occurs about halfway through. Little Oblivions is no different, with the four-minute climactic “Ringside” appearing as Baker makes one of her most poignant self-assessments: “Nobody deserves a second chance, but honey I keep giving them.” In the final bar in the verse just before this one, Baker closes it with, “Nobody deserves a second chance, but honey I keep getting them,” to the applause of a roaring guitar. It’s key that this realization comes before the point in the record where we observe the transition of growth from Baker through her lyrics. The questions posed, in my mind, in the first half of the record come up on two of the handful of sultry and extraterrestrial organ-heavy tracks “Faith Healer” (Who should I believe isn’t scamming me: the priest or the snake oil salesperson?) and “Relative Fiction” when Baker laments, “Do I get colossus or do I stay tender/Which of these is worse, and which is better?” Practicing the art of speaking things into and out of existence beautifully, Baker seemingly comes to some answer after turning the corner on “Ringside.” On “Favor” — where Baker comes to an awareness that sometimes these things that are supposed to help us (like seatbelts and nicotine patches) — and “Repeat” (All my greatest fears turn out to be the gift of prophecy”), she appears to accept things that she has known but has rejected up to these points.
When I embarked on my day trip to St. Louis back in 2018 to catch Baker (and even when I visited a friend in Toledo), I was doing it under the guise of how long? How long would I be able to last here until someone back in Columbus actually noticed I was gone? And should I use this as a way to gauge how much people care for me? It was toxic co-dependence at its core. I knew that at the time but wasn’t willing to accept it then.
If you’re looking for critical and emotionally indebted musings on Baker’s work, Columbus writer Hanif Abdurraqib penned a letter of sorts to Baker’s song “Hurts Less” off of her first album. One of the analogies he dissects and comes back to throughout the passage is Baker’s willingness to opt-out of life by not wearing a seatbelt, as well as the realization that there are people in this world who can make the action of always putting one on worth it. The passage, “Few things know loneliness like a highway, for all of the people going to places they don’t want to go, or driving away from people they don’t want to be driving away from,” is then echoed on “Hardline”: “I can see where this is going, but I can’t find the breaks.” As much as one would love to make another analogy to driving and Baker’s music, it’s important which “break” Baker is using.
When I walked out of The Pageant after Baker’s show, I immediately took out my phone to call my friend and let them know I was on my way home. I always knew that I would be coming back home, even when I convinced myself on the way there that I wouldn’t. Breaking my habit of expecting people to always be the arms reaching out and realizing that my perceived loneliness took having to actually confront those thoughts. Hanif also penned a short essay in lieu of a bio, aiding in Baker’s announcement of a new album. He began his third graf with: “To wrestle with the interior of one’s self has become a side effect of the times, and will remain a side effect of whatever times emerge from these.” Although the answers to Baker’s questions aren’t necessarily clear, it’s her acceptance of these questions that she has that is leading to a newfound growth.