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Julien Baker’s cathartic ‘Sprained Ankle’

| Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sprained Ankle_WEBLAUREN WELDON | The Observer

“Sad bastard music” is how Julien Baker has taken to referring to her songwriting, at least somewhat jokingly, in recent interviews. It’s an apt description of the 20-year-old singer-songwriter’s stunning debut, “Sprained Ankle,” an album about coping with sadness in its various permutations. Baker’s songs — about addiction, loneliness, heartbreak, mortality — are emotionally arresting; they grab you by the neck and force you to feel something.

Baker has been writing songs since junior high and became immersed in the Memphis music scene in high school with her band, Forrister. When she went off to school at Middle Tennessee State University, though, she found herself missing her bandmates and began writing songs alone in the practice room of her school’s music building. The result of those late-night songwriting sessions is “Sprained Ankle,” an album that falls in the lineage of Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago,” Waxahatchee’s “American Weekend” and Torres’ self-titled LP — confessional, emotionally direct debuts that emerged from an artist in solitude.

Most of the album is just Baker’s voice, which oscillates between quiet restraint and a powerful wail depending on what the song calls for, and her electric guitar, drenched in reverb and delay. With these two instruments, she constructs a self-contained universe, expansive in sound even as its subject matter is inward-looking. Baker recorded her album at Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb Studio, where Natalie Prass laid down her equally impressive debut. While the sparse “Sprained Ankle” is miles away from the lush instrumentation of Prass’ album, it is in some ways similarly hi-fi: You can hear every quiver, every crack, every hint of emotion in Baker’s voice.

Baker employs this intimacy to devastating effect when she mines the depths of the human psyche, the self-loathing and despair that emerge in one’s loneliest moments. “I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you’d never touched,” she cries out on “Everybody Does.” On “Good News:” “I ruin everything I think could be good news.” “Give me everything good, I’ll throw it away,” she sings on “Rejoice,” her voice rising to no more than a whisper.

Yet, despite confronting the darkness within, “Sprained Ankle” is ultimately an album about resilience. The gorgeous title track is a particularly deft meditation on this theme, masterfully chronicling the journey towards catharsis in relatively few words. It opens with Baker declaring, “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” By the end, however, she’s singing plaintively, “Marathon running, my ankles are sprained.” It’s a simple metaphor, but an effective one: You can’t allow sprained ankles to be a debilitating injury if you’re going to cross the finish line after 26.2 miles.

This resilience in the face of pain is linked with the search for spirituality, as on “Rejoice,” which is the most explicitly about faith. It begins as a narrative of adolescent ennui, of “walking around, jumping the train tracks.” After wandering around a suburban park at night, Baker finally arrives at a conclusion: “I think there’s a God and He hears either way / When I rejoice and complain.” Baker repeats those lines twice, first in hushed tones and then verging on screaming — one of the most affecting moments on an album full of them.

“I don’t want to dwell on negativity, but you have to confront it,” Baker explained in a interview with Vulture. “Through writing this record, I came to terms with a lot of the fear and self-hatred and loneliness that I needed to.” Again and again on “Sprained Ankle,” Baker renders these emotions in devastating clarity, making for one of the most affecting, assured debuts in recent memory.

4.5/5 stars

Tracks: “Blacktop,” “Sprained Ankle,” “Rejoice”

If you like: Bon Iver, Waxahatchee, Torres

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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