Creating a synthesis between things as distant as darkness and light is a tall order. Yet somehow, Julien Baker manages to pull it off.
In her debut album, “Sprained Ankle,” Julien is honest and poetic. I first listened to this album at about three in the morning towards the very end of my freshman year, during the period of stress and self-doubt preceding my final exams. I had been hopelessly scrolling Facebook and saw a New Yorker article entitled “Julien Baker Believes in God.” I read the article and was compelled to listen, and as I did, wave after wave of emotion washed over me in a much-needed catharsis.
Although “Sprained Ankle” is by no means a lengthy LP, at a bit over half an hour, it is slow and powerful. The songs are fairly simple on note-by-note level, and their simplicity is a significant part of their beauty. Every song contains a great deal of space between the notes and phrases and the reverb-laden guitar. This space feels like a sanctuary in its true sense—a place of reflection, introspection, and safety.
Perhaps it’s an illusion, but “Sprained Ankle” truly feels like a friend. There is a closeness to the music. It’s in the buzz of the strings against the frets and the raw power of Julien’s voice. The imperfections are, paradoxically, what makes this album so perfect.
Behind the stripped-down honesty of this album is a clear faith in God. Regardless of your beliefs, I am certain that something here will speak to you. Julien is never preachy, and only twice during the album does she mention God, once by playing a recording of a radio preacher alongside strains of a hymn. Gently and powerfully, Julien makes you feel the depth and weight of her faith.
Julien usually performs with nothing but guitar and a loop station. Yet instead of a “one-man band” approach with many textures, like Shakey Graves, she keeps things stripped down. While Julien’s guitar skills are assured and tactful, she never shows off, keeping the focus on the lyrics—words which contain plenty of music on their own. Even without music, you can feel the poetic power of Julien’s words. Lines like
There’s more whiskey than blood in my veins
More tar than air in my lungs
(from “Go Home”)
Somebody’s listening at night with the ghosts of my friends when I pray
Asking, “Why did you let them leave and then make me stay?”
have the raw power of the raging ocean. But if anything perfectly encapsulates this album, it’s this verse from “Blacktop”:
So I wrote you love letters
And sung them in my house
And all around the South
The broken strings and amplifiers scream with holy noise
In hopes to draw you out
The idea of amplifiers being conduits for “holy noise” might seem odd at first. Perhaps it’s the connection of amps and electric guitars to “devil’s music” as some people might call it. Interestingly, “Sprained Ankle” strives to make sense of a rock n’ roll world with all the elements of rock completely rearranged. Though the lyrics sometimes follow the rock n’ roll path of addiction and substance abuse, the tone is completely different. Julien is also a million miles from the formulaic world of contemporary Christian music, despite her explicit faith (and there are no clichés or endlessly repeated hallelujahs).
In summary: the beauty of this album, though difficult to define, is instantly recognizable. I’ll end my gushing, but I must finish with this quote from my favorite author:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end . . . because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”
— Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien)
The final notes of “Go Home” help clear my mind from some of the stress and chaos of life. Like Tolkien, “Sprained Ankle” doesn’t gloss over or marginalize evil and pain. Nevertheless, the knowledge that a true home exists is able to lift us up from the darkness of this world. I very much hope that anyone reading this can find a glimmer of the true home waiting in the music of Julien Baker.
Click here to receive email updates from The Cellary!
Featured photo: Artwork for “Sprained Ankle” by Julien Baker.