Julien Baker and the joy of harrowing music


In Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle I heard possibly the best, yet most worrying album in recent memory.

For someone who doesn’t focus too much on the lyrics in the first few listens (yes, people like me exist), Baker’s album seemed extremely deceptive. On the surface, it sounded absolutely beautiful but when I really heard it, I realized how haunting and harrowing the imagery she painted was. Of course, after listening to it as many times as I have, I greatly appreciate her lyrical dexterity. Delivered with Baker’s fragile and compelling voice, Sprained Ankle is heartfelt but equally unsettling and painful at the same time.

It isn’t difficult to figure out that Baker views her music as a safe space for her narrative songwriting gives the listener an account of what she has had to deal with. She was part of a band, Forrister, in high school and while gigging around town, she became an addict. Go Home is where she pours her heart out.

“I wanna go home, but I’m sick
There’s more whiskey than blood in my veins
More tar than air in my lungs
The strung out call I make”

She attended church regularly with her now-divorced parents, and faith became an important part of her life. I’ve seen many complain on certain forums about the religious undertones of some of her songs, but why are we okay with Adele or Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran or Bruno Mars talk about their love interests but not when someone writes about the things which have significance in her life? Faith is important to her, as evidenced in the song Rejoice.

“I think there’s a God and he hears either way,
When I rejoice and complain”.

The great part is that she doesn’t care about the people having issues with the content of her songs. Instead, she chooses to focus on the ones who can relate and connect with her through her songs. “For every time someone misconstrues your lyrics, there’s one person who finds the right meaning in them,” she said in an interview.

Which brings me to her interviews. I was almost overwhelmed by the poise, maturity and humility that was on display. Perhaps because the success the 20-year-old has achieved came as a surprise to her and that she didn’t plan any of it. In fact, Sprained Ankle was put by her on Bandcamp as she did with her previous work. This time, however, 6131 records called and asked her to put it down so they could release and promote the record.

It is an absolutely beautiful album which has been arranged with folk songs where she has taken support from her voice, a guitar and reverb.

In an Elliott Smith kind of way, you get taken over by the honesty and vulnerability shown by the artist. I almost felt as though I am sharing Baker’s pain when I heard her singing about her struggle with substance abuse, religious doubt and general pathos.

It must not have been an easy record to make because it isn’t easy to listen to (lyrically speaking). This is a heavy album, a creative output heavier than you could possibly expect from any 20-year-old in any way, but it is an extremely joyful experience.

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