Julien Baker’s New Album and The Summer of 1985
As I was listening to the new Julien Baker album Little Oblivions, I kept think about the summer of 1985. That was a full year after graduating college. I had already started my career, and then got married and moved to Buffalo, NY. That was a momentous year for me.
But that’s not what I was thinking about. I wasn’t thinking about that first job, my now wife of over 35 years, or my adopted hometown that I have grown to love. I was thinking of Suzanne Vega.
Hear me out. In the summer of 1985, before I much of those momentous things, I was still living in the metro New York area. Every other weekend or so I would go to Manhattan with a couple of friends to buy records, eat greasy food at our favorite diners, hang out in cafes and coffee shops, drink in bars, engage in some sightseeing, and just generally adventure around one of the greatest cities in the world. This was a time when New York was still a bit grungy in many places, and hence, more conducive to unpretentious young adults looking for fun.
One summer day, my friends and I were walking in the West Village when I heard some music playing out a window. A lot of windows were open because it was so hot so, there was a lot of music coming from the apartments as we walked along. This music, though, stopped me dead in my tracks. I literally stopped moving int he middle of the sidewalks and listened. For someone who was still in the throws of club music and punk, this was a completely different sound. It was Suzanne Vega.
Vega was part of the new folk revival. Some bands, such as the Washington Squares, were recreating the folk sounds of early 1960s NY. They looked to artists such as Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio, Irish folk musicians like The Clancy Brothers, and others. This had been my Dad’s music when I was born and these groups were trying to revive them in the 1980s.
Suzanne Vega was not like those bands . She was then, and still is, a singer-songwriter of evocative and confessional music. Her music was more James Taylor than Pete Seeger. In 1985, when I first heard her music on that West Village street, she used very sparse arrangements, often just her and her acoustic guitar and thin to hushed vocals. The exception to this was the single that first got her noticed by mainstream fans, “Marlena on the Wall” which had a full rock band and even synths. It’s a great song but not indicative of her style back then.
It was, however, a style that worked and her next album, Solitude Standing, mostly abandoned the sparse folk style in favor of a more pop sound. This too worked for her and the album excelled, especially on the strength of the song “Luka”, and the oft sampled “Tom’s Diner”. Vega was propelled into stardom and became a regular in Lilith Fair circles in the latter 80s and early 90s. Her follow up albums all followed the same formula. That’s not a bad thing — I still love her music — but they don’t represent the place where she started.
This brings me to Julien Baker. She has been the one of the mainstays of the Indie Folk scene. Like 1985 Vega, she is known for emotional and confessional songs, with sparse arrangements. Most of her songs from her previous two albums, Sprained Ankle and Turn Out The Lights, feature just Baker and her guitar. Any accompaniment is so muted that you barely tell there is any.
That’s changed with her latest album Little Oblivions. Baker has deployed a full electric band with guitars, drum kit (playing decidedly non-folk beats), bass, piano, and even backing vocals. It’s more pop than anything she has ever done before. Indie Pop perhaps but not really folk anymore.
And, like Vega’s Solitude Standing, it works. The band brings more intensity to her songs. Pain,joy, love, longing, and sadness, are all amplified by the new approach. At the same time, it is a more accessible album, taking Baker’s music mainstream rather than remaining tucked away in that corner of the music world that is inhabited mostly by sad teenagers and pretentious indie hipsters.
And, I like it. The band gives a sweeping, anthematic quality to her music. Some songs damn near made be cry. Her choice here is the same as Vega’s was in 1985 — continue on as a folk singer known to her small fan base or branch out and say something in a way that resonates with a wider audience.
I’m sure that some Julien Baker fans will be disappointed. They will declare that this is not how she is supposed to make music. That happened in 1987 with Suzanne Vega too. History shows, however, that fans like that do little to propel an artist forward. They want comfort that comes from being in the know and feeling smug about it.
Little Oblivious is a major step forward. It ramps up intensity and emotion, breaking out of the confines of the singer-songwriter folk darling. This is the album that takes Julien Baker’s music and turns it up to eleven. I hope this is her breakout album; the album that brings into the wider mainstream. Little Oblivious shows that she deserves the recognition.
One last story about Suzanne Vega and 1985. The song I heard was “Marlena on the Wall”. As I stopped to listen to the song, I looked up at a building across the street. It was a theater that played old movies and there, painted on the wall, was a picture of Marlena Dietrich. I was literally looking at Marlena on the wall. Weird. I always wondered who was playing that song, in that hot apartment, in the West Village during the summer of 1985. If you’re reading this, let me know.