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Album Review: Julien Baker Embraces Struggles With Addiction In 'Little Oblivions'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Julien Baker does not mince words. The Tennessee songwriter's music offers a candid portrait of a young woman raised in a devout Christian home who went through addiction, recovery and relapse, all before turning 25. Our reviewer Miguel Perez says her latest album, called "Little Oblivions," reveals new folds in the musician's road to recovery.

MIGUEL PEREZ, BYLINE: The first time I heard Julien Baker, she was singing songs off of her debut album in the patio of an Austin bar. It was 2016. She was 20 years old then, singing softly about God and substance abuse onstage, alone, with just her guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPRAINED ANKLE")

JULIEN BAKER: (Singing) Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.

PEREZ: Her new album in many ways doesn't deviate from this spirit. Baker's still brutally honest, unflinching in her study of addiction. But whereas her past projects painted her struggles in simple, gentle lines, "Little Oblivions" opts for broader, bolder brush strokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARDLINE")

BAKER: (Singing) Blacked out on a weekday. Still something that I'm trying to avoid.

PEREZ: Baker has added drums, keyboards and mandolins to her sparse arrangements. The production sounds fuller and more layered, gently swelling into these big, beautiful waves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARDLINE")

BAKER: (Singing) Say it's not so cut and dry. Oh, it isn't black and white. What if it's all black, baby, all the time?

PEREZ: Even the rollout was grander. Poet Hanif Abdurraqib wrote an essay to accompany news of the album. Baker, he says, is a writer who examines their own mess not in a search for answers, but sometimes just for a way out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHLIGHT REEL")

BAKER: (Singing) Passed out in the back of a cab. Could you pull over? I think that I'm trapped.

PEREZ: After several years of sobriety, Baker relapsed in 2019. "Little Oblivions" does not offer much in the way of resolution, simply an embrace of failure, an acknowledgement that recovery from addiction doesn't always follow a straight path. Baker says songs like "Faith Healer" confront the dissonance a person struggling with substance abuse can feel, knowing drug use is harmful but still craving the relief it offers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAITH HEALER")

BAKER: (Singing) Faith healer, come put your hands on me. A snake oil dealer, I'll believe you if you make me feel something.

PEREZ: But Baker isn't worried about wrong or right, just the reality of her recovery. Mistakes will be made. People will get hurt. And life will go on. Her voice, bright and assured, doesn't crumble under the weight of her faults.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RINGSIDE")

BAKER: (Singing) So you could either watch me drown.

PEREZ: Instead, Baker's songs seem to draw power from her flaws, as if to say, I'm human. I'm working on it. That is good enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RINGSIDE")

BAKER: (Singing) Want to fix it, but I don't know how.

KELLY: Julien Baker's new album "Little Oblivions" is out now. Our reviewer Miguel Perez is a reporter for KERA in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RINGSIDE")

BAKER: (Singing) While all your friends are going out. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.