by Jonathan Bannister (@j_utah)
Honesty is a tough racket when there’s an online mob just a post away. It’s far easier to retreat into cynicism and snark. Why be direct when you can be aloof? Why be honest when you can make a joke? Those who wear their feelings on their sleeves aren’t to be trusted. Emotions are for the weak. Sprained Ankle by Julien Baker is a slap in the face to that line of thinking. It shares a lineage with artists like Pedro the Lion and Mineral. Intimate songs that are open about lost loves, doubts of faith, dealings with the darker sides of our inward beings. It’s not hard to see why the album has been labeled sad. It’s an album that acts as an exposed wound. It oozes its hurt through the speakers. However, while there is a sadness that hangs on the songs, a feeling of joy enwraps that sadness. While the songs might recall dark moments in a life, there is an overall feeling of hope and of making it through the other side alive, with a knowledge that the worst can be endured. It all sounds a lot like worship music.
The divine is a big topic on Sprained Ankle with the song "Rejoice" being the obvious example (along with the hymn she plays at the end of the record). Dealing with the age old question of why them and not me, it’s a song that never hides that life isn’t tough, but it ends on an uplift, they’ll continue to rejoice that they get to experience that life even if it’s difficult. Elsewhere on the record more questions are asked of God. “Do you think that there's a way I could ever get too far, That you'd ask me where I'd been, Like I ask you where you are?” she asks of God on the opening song "Blacktop". An acoustic guitar the only companion to her voice. “And our carpenter is so elegant at placing splinters right beneath my nails where I cannot dig them out” she tells a love on "Everybody Does," a song telling a lover they’ll find out the truth about them and run. However, it’s also a statement that could be aimed above, the feeling that you’re too far gone for salvation.
Love and its loss is also throughout the record. “I know you left hours ago, I still haven't moved yet, I knew you were gone months ago, But I can't think of anyone else” she tells a lover no longer there on "Something". Baker’s guitar plucked through reverb provides the lift the words can’t. The playing is assured, her voice getting louder by the end. The end is not in doubt. It isn’t a question. "Good News" has a similar finality but one experienced during the relationship, the thought that it’s just biding time till its inevitable end. “Always scared that every situation ends the same, with a blank stare” Bakers sings.
The album has a feeling of authenticity to it. The questions are earnest, the outcomes earned. Baker has lived these stories. It’s a lot of life for someone who is only in their early twenties. There are lyrics dealing with substance abuse and there is talk about death. All of it out in the open. It’s just her and her guitar (and piano), her voice soaring above the instruments, not accepting a hiding place in the mix. Reverb the only effect allowed on the album. It’s an album that invites you to ask the same questions of yourself. The chance to honestly examine what hides inside, wanting to come out, wanting to be explored. The kind of album you listen to with headphones, alone on a Friday night. Answers may be few, but the searching is enough.