Julien Baker’s startling debut is raw emotion, one of the best albums of the year.
Music like Julien Baker’s could save us all.
I wanted to let that breathe for a second, because I can’t think of the last time I’ve felt someone’s music speak to me on such a visceral level.
In my mind, the closest analog for Sprained Ankle‘s emotional nakedness is the Hotelier’s last record, though they couldn’t be further apart sonically. The Hotelier is clearly a full band effort, with music swelling and crashing around Christian Holden’s broken shout like wind around a tornado’s eye. There’s barely a drumbeat on Sprained Ankle. Julien mostly lingers over looping Elliott Smith-like guitar figures, perhaps a spare piano or string instrument. Every moment feels purposefully restrained, like she’s wrapping a string tight around her wrist over and over until it draws blood. It’s catharsis by contraction instead of cacophony.
The music gets so much power from the intimacy in Baker’s voice–you can hear it breaking, cracking, stretching. She sings like she’s sitting right in front of you, staring at the floor. Like she’s not completely sure if she should be doing this, telling you these microscopic stories about cars wrapped around streetlamps and abandoned parking garages. Many of these songs began as sketches in a music practice room from when she first went to college*, and the lyrics have a diaristic vulnerability that completely guts me. The chorus to “Something” goes:
I know I meant nothing, nothing to you.
I thought I meant something, something, something.
But I just said nothing, said nothing, said nothing.
Sat and watched you drive away.
It’s as simple as a nursery rhyme, but her expressive voice digs a hole into me with these words. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve already found myself just walking around the city as it gets colder, whispering along. It’s shared catharsis at its finest, finding a world of meaning in a simple turn of phrase. She knows it too. There’s this wonderful doubling she does with her voice sometimes, where instead of harmonizing with herself, she’ll sing the same notes in unison. It feels like a chorus, but somehow sounds even lonelier.
[*Note: I didn’t know Julien was 19 when she wrote this album until after I’d already listened a dozen times, and the emotional rawness here is both more and less understandable because of how maturely she expresses herself.]
The album’s general loneliness makes it all the more powerful when she cuts loose and cries out. Take the end of “Everybody Does”, a song that packs a more complete narrative into a single verse and outro than should even be possible. She’s telling an absent lover about her own worthlessness, singing, “You’re gonna run when you find out who I am” and repeating “You’re gonna run” over and over until delivering a completely defeated rejoinder at the top of her voice: “It’s alright, everybody does.”
Look, this is some sad music. It won’t always be what you want to hear, and you’ll likely never throw it on for a friend. But if you give it a moment to find you in the right time, there’s a chance it will become something special, something personal that you own and no one else in the world can take from you.
The album’s best song is the closer, “Go Home”. She’s drunk and strung out on the side of a road, off her meds and contemplating the end:
I’ve kissed enough bathroom sinks
To make up for the lovers that never loved me.
And I know my body is just dirty clothes.
I’m tired of washing my hands.
God, I wanna go home.
Baker practically collapses after delivering that final line, in complete surrender to the world, to God, to anyone who can help her. And miraculously, someone does. A piano arrangement of the church hymn “In Christ Alone” rises up, and a preacher’s voice comes out of the static to bring deliverance. It’s completely unexpected (even to Julien), a piece of hope in a place that just moments ago seemed lost.
I cry whenever I listen to it. I’ve written poems because of it. Honestly, it’s just a fucking joy that music can make me feel this way, like a present that one person gave another she doesn’t know. Give it a chance and open if for yourself. It could save you.
Favorite Tracks: “Something”, “Everybody Does”, “Go Home”