Revisited: Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle
In a music year as off-the-charts great as 2015, some things inevitably slip through the cracks. In the late months of last year—October 23, to be exact—Memphis born singer-songwriter Julien Baker re-released her debut album, originally an 2014 EP found only on Bandcamp. It’s a collection of 9 brittle, beautiful songs called Sprained Ankle. Awash in the warmth of a reverberant electric guitar, Baker spins gossamer stories of pain, loss, faith, and quiet determination.
“Wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” Baker sighs in Sprained Ankle’s title track, and she’s right, in a sense. On Sprained Ankle, she invokes the concept in a variety of contexts—death of the body, death of the soul, the death of relationships, the numbing impact of drugs and alcohol—yet, for an album as preoccupied as it with death in its many forms, Sprained Ankle finds its most special moments when Baker refuses to succumb to her muse. Whether it’s in the threadbare, full-throated supplication of “Rejoice” or the luminous piano on album closer, “Go Home,” Sprained Ankle meets indomitable pain with a grimacing, resolute will to keep fighting.
Baker’s tools are simple, a Fender guitar is her near-exclusive weapon of choice. Suspended cymbal, drum, and piano are the lone interlopers—none of which last long enough to exert much influence on the gentle, finger-picked ostinatos that form the foundation of Sprained Ankle’s musical character. The one weakness of this album is its flirtation with the monochromatic, “sad guitar music” trope that True Detective Season 2 stans know all too well. Sprained Ankle’s saving grace is that it never veers too far into maudlin balladeering. Just as the pathos generated by openers “Blacktop” and “Sprained Ankle” begins to wear on “Brittle Boned,” Baker closes the track with an expansive, redemptive coda. When “Rejoice” threatens to become yet another morose number, Baker replaces her bruised, fragile croon with a desperate, outsized roar.
Faith’s complex role on Sprained Ankle is laid bare by the religious imagery invoked with titles like “Vessels,” “Good News,” and “Rejoice.” Self-loathing love songs like “Everybody Does” share ink with hymns of complicated praise like “Blacktop,” and the two subjects intertwine, informing one another. Baker largely limits the subjects of her songs to second-person references, such that their identities become elusive and fluid. “Everybody Does” can become a caveat to both her Savior and herself that even God may abandon her when He inevitably realizes that she’s beyond hope. “Blacktop” morphs from a hard-won declaration of faith to an expression of gratitude directed at a steadfast friend. As the lines blur and the references gain deeper meaning, Baker’s worldview becomes more poignant. She seems to treat God as another person floating in and out of her life, alternatively supporting her and turning her away, just like everyone else.
One of the most striking elements of Baker’s lyricism—Sprained Ankle’s justifiable focal point — is its deft maneuvering between straightforward, confessional prose and vivid metaphor. Lines like “I know you’re sleeping by now/But I’m still up walking around/The walls of my skull bend backwards/And in like a labyrinth” on heartbreaking highlight, “Something,” mix mundane observations with grotesque, evocative imagery. The resultant blend is a heady brew that positions Baker as a deeply intelligent lyricist, but one who understands that purple prose can grate without some easily digested anchoring points. She reaches a near-perfect equilibrium on Sprained Ankle, which allows her poignant, pointed subject matter to land with far greater impact.
Sprained Ankle concludes with Baker playing “In Christ Alone” as a sermon crackles in the background. By this gently cathartic conclusion, she’s dragged herself and us through Hell: a life filled with misfortune, bad decisions, thoughts of suicide, and God knows what else. Even still, though the last words are a weary, beaten “God, I want to go home,” Baker’s last musical statement leaves us with a soothing reminder that Heaven’s peace can be found in this life, not just the next. There’s some kind of comfort in confirming that, no matter how hard it can be, life is ultimately worth living. Whatever it takes to get you to that conclusion—for Baker it’s an approximation of Faith, for you and I it may be different—is worth the effort. Sprained Ankle appears on its face to be a deeply sad album—the diary of a young woman who has had far more hardship than she’s deserved in her 20 years. By the end of “Go Home,” it becomes clear that pain shouldn’t be the only takeaway from your time with this album. Despite everything, Julien Baker is still here. That, if nothing else, has to be worth something.
Essential Tracks: “Go Home,” “Blacktop,” “Everybody Does,” “Something”