Music

The Apostle Paul’s Little Oblivions

Micah Rickard

“Human nature, call it a curse.”

In six words, Julien Baker gives a pointed thesis on Little Oblivions. The arresting new album expands her musical repertoire, adding greater instrumentation while maintaining the cavernous sound she’s cultivated in her career. It also preserves the spiritual core of Baker’s songs, which can be read as pained, desperate prayers. She continues to explore themes of addiction, self-harm, fear of abandonment—and through it all, the struggle with self.

To really sit with Baker’s music is to make space for discomfort. Whether she’s whispering confessions or “screaming fears into speakers,” there’s an atmosphere of stark solitude that strikes a resonant chord. Her music calls us to inhabit an inner alienation we all feel, though rarely express: self-destructive tendencies, temptations toward things we know won’t satisfy, recursive doubts. There resides within all of us a nature that doesn’t seem entirely us, or perhaps too entirely us. We all find ways to dull the edges of this alienation, but we never eradicate it.

If we’re honest, particularly if we’re being shaped by God’s Word, we cannot be surprised at this reality. In Romans, Paul writes, “I do not understand what I do. . . . For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Paul speaks to this alienation as an ever-present effect of sin, plaguing our best attempts at living well.

Baker knows this conflict intimately. Her songs are littered with failures, dashed hopes, broken relationships, broken bodies. Tellingly, many of these moments are future tense. On the opening track, “Hardline,” she notes that she’ll “Start asking for forgiveness in advance for all the future things I will destroy / That way I can ruin everything, and when I do, you don’t get to act surprised.” Likewise, on “Relative Fiction” she laments, “If I didn’t have a mean bone in my body, I’d find some other way to cause you pain.”

In these sentiments, she embodies Paul’s words in Romans. Both Paul and Baker recognize that our brokenness is inevitable; we're cursed by an inability to fully act on what’s good. At times, we get stuck in this lonesome place, beaten down by our failures, fearful that we’ll circle the same patterns, attributing to ourselves sins we’ve not committed. It’s a shame-stricken frame of imagination. Or, in Baker’s words: “Dying to myself virtually, a massacre.”

But Little Oblivions allows the desire for freedom to shine through. On “Faith Healer,” this takes a negative form, where Baker explores the temptation to replace one vice with another: “Faith Healer, come put your hands on me / Snake Oil Dealer, I’ll believe you if you make me feel something.” But that longing also turns her toward the one true God: “Jesus can you help me now / Trade me in for a briar crown?” As in Paul’s passage, however, the battle rages. Knowing God’s love doesn’t eliminate the ongoing struggle to accept grace. As Baker sings, “It’s the mercy I can’t take.”

Both Paul and Baker recognize that our brokenness is inevitable; we're cursed by an inability to fully act on what’s good.

Cementing the self as the stage for this turmoil, Baker’s imagery is persistently physical. Paul writes, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual . . .” To take Paul’s words as a guide to Baker’s songs, “unspiritual” is best understood as “bodily.” She employs visceral language as she sings of recovery and the ever-present pull toward substance abuse: “I’ll split the difference between medicine and poison / Take what I can get away with while it burns right through my stomach.” Elsewhere, the inner conflict externalizes: “Beat myself until I’m bloody.”

This bodily imagery endures as she searches for hope. In a posture of possible prayer she sings, “Scratch my knees on the gravel / say it’s all part of the deal. / Covered in scars a canyon deep.” Baker’s songs are enfleshed; all the aspects of life—whether radiant or devastating—are caught within the frame of our bodies. As she writes on “Bloodshot,” “Oh, there is no glory in love—only the gore of our hearts.”

But being embodied doesn’t mean her lyrics are only focused on the material. There are spiritual resonances at every turn, whether direct or oblique. On “Ziptie,” she is caught “Limping like a prodigal son.” In one brutal, effective metaphor on “Ringside,” Baker conveys her violent desperation for hope, but she ends on a phrase that conjures visions of Christ being nailed to the cross: “I’m holding on just like a scratch off ticket / how I dig my nails into your skin.”

Even the structure of Little Oblivions evokes the back-and-forth nature of inner alienation. Aching rhetorical questions permeate Baker’s songwriting: “How long do I have until / I’ve spent up everyone’s good will?” While these are lofted without answer, lyrics from other songs could be taken in response, giving the album a recursive quality—further strengthened by Baker’s ever-present looping guitar lines—with longings and fulfillments cast from song to song, forward and back.

The final question of the album brings us quite literally to Christ’s crucifixion. “Good God / when are you gonna call it off, climb down off the cross / and change your mind?” This is the culmination of her fears and doubts; she looks on expectantly, waiting for God to give up on her. But he doesn’t. Baker herself posits a reply in an earlier lyric: “Nobody deserves a second chance, but honey I keep getting them.”

Despite our failures—even future ones—God chose not to climb down. He stayed on the cross to bring mercy, to be the healing that we long for. Baker’s words cry out alongside Paul, searching for the assurance the apostle ultimately finds: “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God—who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!Little Oblivions is a beautiful, blistering work of self-reflection, inviting us to sit with the gore of our hearts while carving a dim but significant space for the God of salvation to enter.

Topics: Music