Review Summary: Finding light in the darkness
On the cover of her debut solo release, Sprained Ankle
, Julien Baker stares straight into and past the listener. Around her, the world is drained of its colour. With it, so too is Julien, drowning in what has in the past appeared to me a colourless ocean, though as I now realise could no less be that of a fence or some other mundane structure. Uncentred, to her right, is a title: Julien Baker Sprained Ankle
. Once again, only now do it notice this: the title italicised, artist emboldened, and still the white text unobvious – indiscriminate, as self-effacing as Julien herself. An album so personal, why not self-title it?
For the most part, Sprained Ankle
revolves around Julien and her guitar. Sure, sprinkled throughout are subtle drum loops, some unintelligible background noise, and even a piano ballad. However, to overstate the album’s instrumentation would be to understate Julien’s strengths as a songwriter. Between its gentle acoustic guitar and Julien’s soft vocal performance – its faintness even manifesting itself into a slight rasp – the album’s opener ‘Blacktop’ offers a patient, almost lethargic listen. Despite its length, however, being one of the album's longer cuts, there is little variation. Yet this delicate single-notedness only lends to the album’s emotional and artistic weight. In addition to the two tracks it precedes – ‘Brittle Boned’ and the title track – ‘Blacktop’ sets the stage for a series of songs sometimes ostensibly uneventful, though often nuanced. Whilst the weight of this can be exhausting, it nevertheless succeeds as a powerful exercise in emotion, each song developing deeper each of the album’s various themes, that of self-worth, abuse, religion, and sadness. In this, Julien’s sweet and delicate, even insecure and self-effacing aesthetic glimmers, and her patient and at times understated approach to songwriting glows: each of the first three tracks grows towards an ostensible climax; the latter two utilise harrowing reverb effects and echoing guitar passages so to give the illusion of the songs floating off into the distance, eroding into a mist, a glitter.
It's these anticlimaxes, however, that make the album so much more powerful - as muted points of contrast, for when the despondent feelings grow tired and turn to fierce frustration. Perhaps the numbest and most disconsolate of these songs, ‘Brittle Boned’ – about the unyielding hurt one goes through to achieve better ends – beckons the first of these fiery outbursts, like a rising storm: album highlight ‘Everybody Does’. What is perhaps the least despondent piece of music on Sprained Ankle
, the song’s bouncier bass notes bubble beneath a bridge which build towards its climax, an explosion of various howled assertions from Julien. “I know,” she repeats, “myself better that anybody else,” an undeniably confident and powerful assertion. Yet, in this, she chooses not to conquer the fears but instead indulge them. With this newfound confidence, she asserts them louder and braver than before, confronting them though refusing to undermine them. Whilst there’s a profound release of emotion, there’s little catharsis, or deliverance, for the speaker. Yes, there's little relief, but there's undeniable comfort - there's comfort in sadness.
In addition to those mentioned, ‘Good News’ and late album highlight ‘Rejoice’ present some of the most compelling examples of Julien’s talents as a songwriter. Whilst the former maintains a loose structure, Julien’s vocal melodies evolve and shift with each thought, ripening in sadness with each evolution, burgeoning into one of the most powerful songs on Sprained Ankle
. On the other hand, ‘Rejoice’ is one of the album’s most well-structured songs, with some interesting guitar work and a powerful emotional outburst in the vein of ‘Everybody Does’. Of course, this isn’t to argue that Sprained Ankle
is a perfect album, or even close to one: whilst much of Julien’s lyrics feel impassioned and genuine, the way in which she writes of love and death at times appear as platitudes. This is evident in the title track, in which she sings, “Wish I could write songs about anything / Other than death,” or in fan favourite ‘Something,’ in which the chorus laments the realisation that one means “nothing,” rather than “something" - though whilst to feel unloved is universal, relatable, here it seems little more than cliche. Sometimes, Julien even drowns in her influences, such as on the track ‘Vessels’, weakened in its apparent Daughter influence, undermining some of Julien's own unique songwriting talents.
As sparse and desolate much of Sprained Ankle
sounds, its contents are nonetheless full of life. From the ambience created through the reverberation of the looped guitars at the backend of the title track, to the soft percussion which propels the song ‘Vessels’ to its climax – and even the haunting harmonies which accompany Julien’s declaration of total and utter worthlessness in ‘Good News’ – the album exudes something resembling hope. Of course, it makes bare fear and a feeling of hopelessness in its sound. For Julien, however, that consolation manifests in the form of God – no matter how flawed or confusing – is clear and undeniable. Just as for the poet Christina Rossetti before her, the clasp of religion offers its own concerns - the allure of the world harmful though no less satiating - but it provides this hope, a figure for which to call out to in the dark. In closer ‘Go Home,’ Julien sings of wandering streets, drunk and alone, calling out for this figure to provide solace, to “come take [her] home,” as life overwhelms and death allures.
“I haven't been taking my meds,
So lock all the cabinets, and send me to bed
Cause I know you're still worried I'm going to get scared again
And make my insides clean with kitchen bleach”
Julien sounds broken and alone, as she howls apologies and truths to the ones that love her. It’s an emotional closer, as the climax grows louder and louder, as her broken heart is laid bare, staining her white sleeves in red, till she mutters those final lines, “God, I want to go home,” and the album ends. In the last minute or so of Sprained Ankle
we hear what sounds like a sermon, with some accompanying piano.
On the cover of her emotional powerhouse of a debut album, Sprained Ankle
, Julien Baker stares inwards to emote and exhibit a powerful feeling. Both she and the world around her are drained of its colour as she blends into the uncertain background. Of course, Sprained Ankle
, no matter how self-effacing the cover, is a personal album. It focuses on self-worth, abuse, religion, and sadness as these themes relate to Julien herself. But in its sadness, Sprained Ankle
uncovers and translates something special. Because it’s fine to feel sad, and there’s comfort in that sadness. Sadness is an exercise in catharsis, or relief. For Julien, catharsis arises in God, and performance. For others, it's music or community. Sprained Ankle
is unrelenting, even comfortable in its despondency. Because it’s fine to feel sad sometimes. It's alright, everybody does.