Julien Baker is a 19 year old singer-songwriter from Memphis, Tennessee. Her debut album Sprained Ankle (Released on 6131 records) is a heart wrenching catharsis amalgamated into nine succinct and beautiful songs. Baker explains in the title track, “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death”, a statement that we would assume presages the rest of the album. However, Baker explores throughout Sprained Ankle her own fight to keep on living rather than giving in to death. Her voice is wounded and harsh yet ultimately optimistic about the future.
After leaving her hometown of Memphis to go to college, Baker began to record demos alone in her dorm room. She was formerly the lead singer of alt-rock outfit Forrister, where much of her musical talent began to show. It is obvious within her lyrics that she suffered from some kind of substance abuse in her teenage years, something she prefers not to talk about in interviews yet hole-heartedly opens up about within her songs. In an interview with Vulture Magazine she admits to “having to confront darkness” in her past. After receiving rave reviews from friends about her debut solo demos, she began to record Sprained Ankle at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginia. The producer and owner of the studios Matthew E. White is known for making booming, orchestral pop records from the likes of Natalie Prass and Flesh Blood. Yet Baker’s hostile arrangement is not fiddled around with by White. The minimalistic vibe permeates throughout Sprained Ankle; without a trumpet solo in sight.
Her soft voice is conversational. It seems like we are being granted access to her secret diary where she spills her emotions, leaving all to bare. She pours every ounce of pain, guilt, and sadness she has felt into every strum and bellowed note, allowing her to express her complex emotions through minimal parts. The ephemeral beauty of each howled line mirrors the work of artists such as Sharon Van Etten, who similarly produces cleansing tracks, fit for helping the listener through grief and sorrow.
On the opening track Blacktop, Baker repeats the line “come visit me”, echoing a longing for reconciliation similar to that of Bon Iver on his breakthrough album For Emma, Forever ago. However in the next line, “come visit me, in the back of an ambulance” she shows us that this song is more a cry for help than a tender plea for a visit from a loved one. On the track Good News, Baker’s use of two simple chords reminds me of the bare guitar arrangements of the Irish singer-songwriter SOAK (a year younger than Baker), who also produced a wonderful debut album this year filled with heartache and quiet optimism. The closing track Go Home is the most unconventional on the record with Baker choosing to ditch her trusty guitar, opting to give a piano the limelight. The scarcity of notes and lyrics is accentuated on this song, leaving us to ponder on her wounded vocals, “There’s more whiskey than blood in my veins, more tar than air in my lungs”. We can’t help but sympathise with her and all she has been through.
Sprained Ankle is a gentle reminder to us that even when we are at our most vulnerable, we are not alone. People have felt pain before and will feel pain in the future. This album is Baker’s attempt at creating a home remedy for broken hearts and ravelled souls, exemplifying through her own experiences how you can make it through anything.
Tommy O’ Donnell