Similar to how people said, “Alright, I guess we’re done with the novel now” after James Joyce’s Ulysses, I thought, “Alright, I guess we’re done with the singer-songwriter genre now” after Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, with its overwhelmingly detailed accounts of second cousins’ deaths and watching The Song Remains the Same. When I took a class on Ulysses (God, why did I do that??) the professor said that the best way to read the book is to lock yourself in a room with nothing but Guinness and read for 72 hours straight. Maybe the same could be said about listening to a lot of musicians (especially Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek), but if you’re already sitting in a room drinking Guinness, you might as well listen to Julien Baker. Her depressing debut will keep you company with deeply personal lyrics and moving instrumentation that continue to push the genre.
And you’ll probably need something stronger than Guinness, because this album hits, in a way that’s incredible and terrible. I can already see it becoming like Alopecia, an album I adore but try to avoid because it makes me too damn depressed. It might be wrong to compare Baker - a 20-year-old junior at Middle Tennessee State University - to Kozelek, who’s made himself a kind of sadcore legend since the late 80s - but she’s already got great musicianship, voice, and lyrics that's startling for her age.
And man, for a 20-year-old you’ve seen some shit, Baker. On the first track, “Blacktop,” Baker tells the story of a streetlamp falling on her car and smashing it in half, and in the process discovers God. A few simple bass notes drive the song while Baker begs God to “come and visit me in the back of an ambulance.” Already you can tell that Baker has a deathly obsession, but just to make sure you know, Baker opens the next song, “Sprained Ankle,” with the line “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” The harmonic intro is very reminiscent of Keaton Henson’s “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are,” but within a minute the song delivers layers of atmospheric wonder and an obvious suicide undertone that digs deep. Her music video is worth checking out - with Baker looking like Richie Tenenbaum if he were a runner, that final line, “Marathon runner, my ankles are sprained” efficiently speaks volumes more than most debuts.
The lyrics of every song are great - and I’ll go on about that in a minute - but what really surprised me with Sprained Ankle is the sonic territory that other singer-songwriters never invade. Songs like “Brittle Boned” and “Vessels” touch on the corners of post-rock, with the former delivering an echoing Explosions in the Sky guitar and the latter sounding a lot like the better parts of This Will Destroy You, with its beating drum and heavy reverb. This sound is likely coming from Baker's other band, Forrister, which builds loud bridges between punk and post-rock. At 20-years-old Baker already has a solid, varied DIY history, and it gives her a sonic sensibility that sets her apart from the rest of the singer-songwriter crowd - even pros like Kozelek - and I can’t wait to hear her continue to explore her sound.
The instrumentation always seems to complement the vocals, especially on “Good News” (one of the best songs on the album), whose steady electric guitar anchors lyrics that are so bluntly unpoetic that they’re poetic in their bluntness: “It’s not easy when what you think of me is important, and I know it shouldn’t be so damn important, but it is to me. And I’m only ever screaming at myself in public, I know I shouldn’t act this way in public.” The best pairing of instrumentation and vocals has got to be “Something,” which starts to sound like Sigur Rós while subtly getting huge as Baker delivers equally echoing, moving lines, like “I know I meant nothin’, nothin’ to you. I thought I meant somethin’, somethin’, somethin’, but I just said nothin’, said nothin’, said nothin’ - sat and watched you drive away.”
There’s an interesting Christian dimension to Baker that you don’t often see with extremely depressed 20-year-olds with World Wildlife Foundation stickers on their acoustic guitars. The most obvious example is “Rejoice,” where Baker openly explores her faith. That live take is especially phenomenal, and really showcases that Baker can sing, and sing loud while hitting every note. The energy she puts into the performance is contagious, and at the end you can hear her almost out of breath. I’m definitely going to see her in Boston if she puts that much into a live show. The final track, “Go Home” continues to paint a Christian side of Baker, with a story that’s too good to not retell here. The second half of the song includes an Interesting piano instrumental that’s from a Christian hymn called “In Christ Alone,” and apparently while recording Baker’s pre-amp accidentally picked up a local Christian radio station that really adds to the song. Hopefully Baker continues to bring this raw, organic nature to her sound, or at least continue to pick up radio stations that make her songs cooler.
Baker says that she’s going to tour whenever she gets the chance, i.e., whenever school is out. In January she’ll be hitting Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Philly, and even my hometown Louisville and my new home Boston. Although alone, Baker can create a surprisingly dynamic, layered sound that everyone should check out.
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