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Julien Baker Chronicles Her Own Path To Redemption On 'Little Oblivions'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Julien Baker's third studio album called "Little Oblivions." Since her debut in 2015, Baker has become one of the most highly praised figures in indie rock. She's also known for being one-third of the vocal group Boygenius, along with fellow singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Ken says Baker's new album presents frank discussions of mental distress and addiction embedded in frequently beautiful music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAITH HEALER")

JULIEN BAKER: (Singing) Ooh, I miss the high, how it dulled the terror and the beauty. And now I see everything in startling intensity. Oh, what I wouldn't...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I miss the high, sings Julien Baker on "Faith Healer," one of the rare songs about addiction that remembers the marvelous allure of it as vividly as the awful pain of it. Only in her mid-20s, Baker seems already to possess a lifetime's understanding of how people can hurt themselves. She's been frank about this in interviews and in her lyrics, but she's not a baldly confessional writer; she's in this business for the art.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG IN E")

BAKER: (Singing) I wish that I drank because of you and not only because of me. Then I could blame something painful enough not to make me look any more weak. When you heard my name, you could be angry and have a good reason to be. And then when I sang a horrible parade of my worst thoughts, I'd say, give me no sympathy. It's the mercy I can't take.

TUCKER: That song - it's called "Song In E" - sounds like Julien Baker sitting alone at the piano, trying to figure out the easiest way to blow up her life - telling a lover, I wish you'd hurt me; it's the mercy I can't take. She's placing anyone who loves her in an impossible position, and she knows it. As she sings on another song, in a great turn of phrase, I'm not crying wolf; I'm out here looking for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRYING WOLF")

BAKER: (Singing) Day 1 chip on your dresser. Get loaded at your house. I ask if you remember. You say, I don't know what you're talking about. Swallow the truth. Force the charcoal down my throat. Finally come to. Maybe I'll have someone to show. It's the first day of the new year...

TUCKER: The title of the album says it all - "Little Oblivions" are those moments during the high, when you can forget your problems, your ego, your pain. In the song where that phrase appears, the tune called "Bloodshot," Baker looks deep into the eyes of someone wounded, someone Baker herself has wounded, and in those eyes, she sees her own hopeless attraction to various little oblivions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOODSHOT")

BAKER: (Singing) I can see myself inside your bloodshot eyes, wondering if you can see yourself in mine. Or do you just see me? And of me, what you want to see.

TUCKER: Listening to her previous releases, I was more impressed by Baker's approach to lyrics than her sound, which tended toward the burned-out and monochromatic. But there's a new variety and depth on "Little Oblivions," with Baker supplying nearly all of the guitars, drums, synthesizers, banjo and mandolin. And it's not just a one-person band feat or trick; it's the sound of a musician putting together her life, piece by piece. I love the steady build and rock 'n' roll forcefulness of a song such as "Ringside."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RINGSIDE")

BAKER: (Singing) Beat myself until I'm bloody, and I'll give you a ringside seat. Say that it's embarrassing. I'm sorry that you had to see me like that. So you could either watch me drown or try to save me while I drag you down. Want to fix it, but I don't know how. It isn't fair to make you wait around while all your friends are going out. So, Jesus, can you help me now?

TUCKER: At the climax of that wonderful song, Baker sings, nobody deserves a second chance, but, honey, I keep getting them. So many of these songs are about Julien Baker taking responsibility for herself, thinking about her past behavior, owning up to her mistakes. You might listen to the tone of voice and read her lyrics on the Internet and think that this would make for a depressing, downbeat experience. Instead, it's thrilling to be in the presence of someone who has seized hold of her life and is describing it in a way that no one else ever has. For Baker, that's how you redeem a life.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Julien Baker's new album called "Little Oblivions."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jane Mayer. Her new article in The New Yorker is about the investigation into potential criminal misconduct by Donald Trump, an investigation led by Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. Mayer reports that the investigation has intensified since Trump left office, and it's one of the most significant legal showdowns in American history. If Trump is charged and convicted, he could end up serving a prison term. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIEN BAKER SONG, "FAITH HEALER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.