Mental illness, faith and all the big things in ‘Little Oblivions’

0
64
The article takes you through the newly released album by Julien Baker, “Little Oblivions” and how the artist is using their voice and music to speak on mental illness. Photo courtesy of fathipster.

Prior to the release of our Valentine’s Day issue, I remember messaging someone over Tinder who had listed Julien Baker as one of their top musical artists. After years of not meeting a single person who shares the same respect, my first instinct was to let them know how pleasantly surprised I was. They replied with something along the lines of “Are none of your friends gay and depressed?” 

I guess I never realized the demographic was that specific. For me, the first trait has yet to emerge. As for the second, I would usually just tell you to read my column, but to save you time — the answer is yes. 

Although she’s not one of my most-listened-to artists, Julien Baker is the one I admire the most. There are various reasons, like the fact that listening to her music has become a ritual for times when brooding in a dark room and crying uncontrollably seems to be the most appropriate thing to do; or how relatable she is when approaching subjects like mental illness and spirituality — two core themes of her work; not to mention the representation she offers as a lesbian musician. 

“There are various reasons, like the fact that listening to her music has become a ritual for times when brooding in a dark room and crying uncontrollably seems to be the most appropriate thing to do; or how relatable she is when approaching subjects like mental illness and spirituality — two core themes of her work; not to mention the representation she offers as a lesbian musician. “

Baker’s latest release, “Little Oblivions,” is no exception to the elaborate lyricism and complex motifs explored in her previous albums. It represents a shift from the acoustic indie roots in her debut LP “Sprained Ankle” to an instrumentally diverse mix of alternative, emo, indie and soft-rock. While her sound has evolved, Baker’s writing continues to delve into topics like substance abuse, self-loathing, depression, anxiety and how they tie into her Christian faith. 

There’s not much negative criticism for me to give about the album. “Little Oblivions” has already been met with critical acclaim and its rave reviews are evidence of that. While giving my insight on each song through 12 extensive paragraphs is tempting, it’s probably best to listen to the album yourself. Instead, I’ll just indicate three of my favorite tracks. 

“Ringside” came at a particularly fitting moment last week when I emailed my professor in the midst of a panic attack, requesting an extension with an attached photo of a self-inflicted scratch wound. According to Baker, it’s a song about the compulsive nature of anxiety tics — how these physical occurrences can oftentimes be shameful when they go noticed. And they actually are quite embarrassing; sending that email made me internally cringe. But hearing about it in a song made me feel better about what happened, and I was reminded to never underestimate the significance of mental health awareness again. 

In her editors’ notes on Apple Music, Baker explains the inspiration behind “Highlight Reel:” “I was in the back of a cab in New York City and I started having a panic attack and I had to get out and walk. The highlight reel that I’m talking about is all of my biggest mistakes, and that part — ‘when I die, you can tell me how much is a lie’ — is when I retrace things that I have screwed up in my life. I can watch it on an endless loop and I can torture myself that way. Or I can try to extract the lessons, however painful, and just assimilate those into my trying to be better.” 

“I was in the back of a cab in New York City and I started having a panic attack and I had to get out and walk. The highlight reel that I’m talking about is all of my biggest mistakes, and that part — ‘when I die, you can tell me how much is a lie’ — is when I retrace things that I have screwed up in my life. I can watch it on an endless loop and I can torture myself that way. Or I can try to extract the lessons, however painful, and just assimilate those into my trying to be better.” 

One of the worst parts about anxiety (although there’s a lot of them) is having to deal with the interpersonal repercussions. It’s a debilitating feeling to begin with; you feel like a burden, and the guilt of letting people down and hurting them in the process ends up piling on top of everything else. The more hopeful side of this scenario — one which “Highlight Reel” emphasizes — is these perceptions of ourselves aren’t real. People are more understanding than you think; despite being put in the bleakest way possible, this track does a good job of relaying that message. 

However, the bleakness of “Highlight Reel” is no match for “Ziptie,” the last song on the album. Most artists would usually prefer to end their string of work with a bang, but “Little Oblivions” ends with more of a dejected sigh. Here, Baker’s final words form a question for Jesus — whether he regrets saving humanity based on the atrocities that take place in the modern world: “Oh, good God / When you gonna call it off? / Climb down off of the cross / And change your mind?” To avoid sounding like an evangelist, I won’t go into detail about why this one is meaningful. Just know that it is. 

If you’re waiting to hear about anything optimistic, I’m sorry to disappoint. This album is an absolute downer, and that’s the best part about it. There’s something refreshing about combining religious themes with the concept of mental health; almost like a direct comeback to “praying the [insert mental illness here] away.” It’s just not as easy as some Christian songs like to say it is. Compared to Hillsong UNITED, Julien Baker adds the right amount of spiritual anecdotes that make her music exclusive to anyone, not just church-goers — less “I love Jesus,” and more “God, I’m depressed.” 

Three albums later, Baker still hasn’t missed. “Little Oblivions” is her most personal work yet, with a new level of emotional vulnerability that provides audiences with the opportunity to reciprocate those same sentiments. She includes another note via Apple Music: “I think one of the easiest ways to overcome your pain is to assign significance to it. But sometimes, things are awful with no explanation, and to intellectualize them kind of invalidates the realness of the suffering. I just let things be sad.” 

Rating: 4.7/5 

Leave a Reply