Julien Baker didn’t need to finish her college degree. Before she was even 25, the singer-songwriter had released two stellar solo albums plus an EP with the supergroup boygenius, alongside Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. But Baker always had a studious streak, and her projects are marked by an honest desire to learn more about the world and herself — so in the middle of 2019, she reenrolled in Middle Tennessee State University and finished her English degree ahead of her third album, Little Oblivions. It’s her first album backed by a full band (she performed most of the parts), a choice partially informed by her thesis on music and language — a study that, in her words, comes down to “how to communicate better.”
The fuller, more confident sound punctuates a continued dive into topics she’s wrestled with for years, from mental health and addiction to religion and morality. “I don’t think that music can be a perfect analogue to language, and maybe that’s a good thing,” Baker says of her research’s conclusion. But say it were? In order to enhance the Little Oblivions listening experience, she’s prepared a sort of syllabus to the album for Vulture, pairing a few songs from the project with illuminating literary works they each evoke. Alert your book clubs accordingly.
Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno
He’ll focus in on how the means of production permeate all of our lives, or how participating in the existing massive government structures actually doesn’t benefit us all that much. It’s devastating to read, but it’s also weirdly comforting that someone took the time to write down how everything is broken. If I were Theodor Adorno, I wouldn’t have finished writing that book. I would have given up and realized I’m writing a book about futility that is ultimately going to be another futile act in a futile world.
Justin Curto: It goes with the last few lines of the song that stick with me: “What if it’s all black, baby, all the time?” Something that’s maybe hard to swallow, but you keep thinking of it.
There’s a level of recognizing that maybe I had spent a really long time trying to retroactively imbue suffering with meaning. And while it’s a completely normal thing and it’s how human beings cope, maybe assigning it to divine providence or just fate or an experience that ultimately taught you a lesson and made you stronger actually robbed you of the right to mourn a bad thing that happened. I think sometimes, when people believe that everything happens for a reason, it’s easy to shift responsibility for your fellow human being from the self to the divine. It’s actually very alarming to think that we are responsible for each other, you know? But we are.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
That book is about a cult. It’s so fascinating to me — and I think Kwon does a really good job of illustrating this — how, when you get right down to it, really anybody can be in a cult. I mean, look at the Capitol [insurgence]. Those people are motivated by a belief system that has long ago departed from anything you could consider rational, and which is now basically a mixture of emotional manipulation and propaganda.
“Faith Healer” is a song about how it’s really easy to pity people who find themselves in a context of addiction to drugs and alcohol, where they are being deceived both psychologically and neurochemically by their own brain. But people do that with church. In the book, what ends up happening is the group attacks an abortion clinic. That is violent, and I would venture to say that is wrong. But I can understand why. There’s so many things that could make a person vulnerable to that kind of ideology, and it happens all the time. It’s just wild how quickly we can form an allegiance to a belief system and then put that ahead of our awareness of other people.
It’s hard, especially as a person of faith who, over the last couple of years, has been reevaluating how literally I think of God or the divine or the sacred. Now, I guess I would just think the most sacred thing is what manifests between human beings, and instead of serving some weird Monty Python character in the sky, it’s probably better to just worship the dignity of humans.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
While I was in the middle of writing this record [in 2019], I was having a crisis of belief about myself. The more self-destructive behaviors I repeated and the more ways that I failed miserably to live up to the ideals I held for so long, then the worse that I felt about myself. I remember one of my friends coming over to hang out with me, and they said to me the quote from that book, “Now that you’re not perfect, you can just be good.” There’s been seldom a literary moment that’s made me so emotional.
I don’t know that I had ever thought about those things as separate entities. It’s more like you try to be as good as you can along this continuum towards perfect. I had never thought about how the impossibility of perfection, the inevitability of failure, means that maybe you just can only really aspire to be good, and that that’s okay. That’s just not, in the traditional Christian context, how you conceive of your actions.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
I read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in one sitting, and it just tore me apart. The character of Brick is so interesting to me because often alcoholics are portrayed as either furious, dangerous people full of resentment, or people who drink out of just this pure need and compulsion. Tennessee Williams will have a page long of stage notes to talk about why Brick drinks, and it was just so sad. He just regards everything from this haze of indifference, because ultimately nothing matters to him. And the way that he medicates the disappointment and the disillusion that he’s experienced in his life is by drinking. It’s super-sad to see a person stripped.
JC: It seems like you find nihilism very interesting.
Yes, and it’s funny because I can’t fully relinquish the idea of goodness or purpose. I wonder if that is something embedded in me culturally, or whether it’s just a deep psychological need. I’m intrigued by my own brain’s need to keep throwing itself against a wall and trying to figure out some meaning.
“I want a president” by Zoe Leonard
I’ve been returning to canon queer authors that nobody ever taught me how to form a relationship with in high school or college. This poem, I paired it with “Bloodshot” because that is a song about violence and heartbreak and pain unfolding in queer relationships. The poem is like, half queer futurity, dreaming of a time when queer people can be represented in a thoughtful way, and then also just half anger. Justified anger, that the people speaking on behalf of and governing marginalized communities often aren’t people that belong to those. So how can you have empathy?
JC: I’ve seen this poem revisited online often in the last few years. What do you think is the continued resonance?
It’s, in a way, disheartening that change is so incremental that this poem can continue to be relevant for so many administrations, but then it’s also encouraging to me. The purpose of making art is that it is going to matter. Reading poems like this makes me feel inspired to create works that maybe, potentially, put one more little pebble on the pile of progress.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
It makes me think of my own memories, to read a book that’s just these jumbled vignettes of dashing around in the art scene and having this surreal, disjointed collection of experiences, but that’s how we tend to remember things. The dynamic in that book that really spoke to me was between her and Mapplethorpe. There’s this one line where she says, “I was good trying to be bad, and he was bad trying to be good.” I thought of that, when I read it the first time, really literally, like as if there could be a fundamentally good person and a fundamentally bad person striving to be something that they inherently were not. Now I think maybe the point of that sentence is, within the little description of her relationship with him, how those people viewed themselves and what society told them about themselves. I could see myself in my friendships as both Robert and Patti. It’s so sad, but there’s a great deal of empathy that can be exercised here.
The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen
I was in the middle of reading the book and muddling through, trying to absorb all of the terminology and define the terms that the author was working with and what they mean. And I was like, What am I doing? I am literally doing the same thing that I did for years with the Bible. I think I’m going to find some illuminating text that will make the world make sense to me and will make me understand what the right thing to do is. It talks about how you will never arrive at an institutional, singular practice of justice. If it is just to recognize everyone’s idea of what justice and fairness means, and it’s unavoidable that people will have different ideas about justice and fairness, then there’s literally no way.
“Ziptie” bookends well with “Hardline” because it’s another song of mourning for the suffering in the world at large. This idea of having a person being in a zip tie is, you’re restrained, but also someone who is applying the handcuffs to you believes that it’s just to do so, right? It’s a symbol of oppression masquerading as justice: the zip tie, the restraining object itself. Sometimes I think that by creating institutions and then regarding them as infallible, whether that’s with the Bible or with the Constitution — if it doesn’t somewhat imprison our mind within the limitations of that belief system.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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