In the single most quotable moment of her debut album Sprained Ankle, the 19-year-old Tennessee singer-songwriter Julien Baker plaintively and matter-of-factly mutter-coos, “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” That’s the closest she ever comes to a statement of intent, a this-is-who-I-am moment. But she’s selling herself short. Baker writes songs about so many other things. She writes songs about lying in a hospital bed and waiting for consciousness to fade away, listening to the beeps and whirrs of the machines around her and feeling the cold invasiveness of an IV needle in her skin. She writes songs about wandering around a public park, strung out in the dead of the night, trying to figure out if she should complain to God or rejoice in her own squalor. She writes songs about the moment of a devastating breakup, seeing it coming a mile away and being unable to stop it: “I knew I should have said something, but I couldn’t find anything to say, so I just said nothing, sat and watched you drive away.” She sings, over and over again, about seeing her veins turn different colors. Compared to all that, songs about death are easy. Here’s a song about death: I’m a fucking skeleton, whoa whoa whoa, I’ll bite your head off. See how easy that was? I just wrote that. It was nothing. Baker writes songs about living, about staring at the darkness at the core of your being and deciding to struggle on anyway. So no, she doesn’t only write songs about death. Her songs are way heavier than that.
Baker’s origin story goes something like this: When she left her Memphis home and went away to college outside Nashville, she left behind her band Forrister. She started recording songs on her own because she missed her friends, but her friends told her that her demos were good, and that she should record them for real. And so here we have a fully-formed album full of these songs about fucked-up despair, about feeling close to death when you’re not even old enough to legally drink yet. Baker has some kind of substance abuse in her past, and while she hasn’t been very specific about that substance abuse in interviews, she sings unflinchingly about the feelings and sensations she remembers: “There’s more whiskey than blood in my veins, more tar than air in my lungs. The strung out call that I make, burned down on the edge of the highway: ‘I’m sorry for asking, but please come take me home.'” These days, she refers to herself as a grandma, and in this great Vulture interview, she even takes some issue with the idea that she’s a singer of sad songs: “I don’t say that it’s sad. I always say ambient, because I have four reverb pedals and three delays that I don’t need.” And sure, she’s not shy about using effects pedals. But she’s actively brave in singing about the feelings she sings about, about being raw and sucked-out and utterly devoid of hope. On Sprained Ankle, she makes a whole aesthetic about it.
Spacebomb Studios is in Richmond, Virginia, and it’s the sort of place you go when you’re making orchestral pop and you want to make sure you’re not halfassing anything on the “orchestral” side of that genre tag. It’s Matthew E. White’s studio, and it’s the place where he developed his shambling auteurist hippie-soul, learning exactly where to pile the strings and how high to pile them. It’s also where Natalie Prass made her astonishing self-titled debut, a ray of sunshine that came out in the dead of winter, at the top of the year. But Spacebomb is also where Julien Baker recorded Sprained Ankle. There ain’t a damn thing orchestral about this album, and she’s nobody’s ray of sunshine. Instead, it’s a spare and personal affair. Baker is the only musician credited in the liner notes (only songwriter, too), and that hard intimacy is important to the album. It feels like she’s singing directly to you, with no filter and nobody standing between you. But recording at Spacebomb was still a great idea, since the album piles on layers in subtle ways, ways that always enhance what you’re hearing. That’s where those effects pedals come in. As a song builds, we’ll hear a few different Julien Bakers singing in multi-tracked harmony, or we’ll hear another guitar chord humming and chiming underneath the main figure. There’s a widescreen clarity to the way the album is recorded; for all its unflinching intensity, it sounds big. In a weird way, the album’s sound treats Baker’s feelings with the respect they deserve.
And Baker delivers those feelings, too. On every song, her voice starts out quiet and inward. It’s conversational, but it’s conversational in that pulling-teeth way, where you can tell she’s only talking because she’s forcing herself to do it. As the songs progress, though, that voice gets louder, as if it’s building confidence. And by the end, she’s gone into a full-on wail. She comes from emo, and you can hear that in her voice, in the way she uses vocal fry for its full heart-ripping effect. But there’s also enough twang in her delivery that it can’t help but connect itself to country and soul and gospel. And when that voice finally rises up, it grabs you and shakes you around and does things to your soul. “I can’t think of anyone, anyone else,” she howls on “Something,” and off top, I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone express that “how am I going to get over this person?” post-breakup feeling that forcefully or cathartically.
Force and catharsis are big themes here. This is an album that takes an S.O.S. pad to your feelings. It’s harsh, and it’s cleansing. The feelings are universal in the most cringing and desperate ways: “Whenever I’m alone with you can’t talk, but ‘Isn’t this weather nice? Are you Okay?’ Should I go somewhere else and hide my face?” Or: “You’re gonna run when you find out who I am. I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you’d never touched.” And Baker’s voice is so wounded and expressive that those sentiments come through with excruciating plainness. She lays it all out, again and again. By the end of the album, she’s finally singing about the death that she can’t stop writing songs about, or at least she’s singing about an escape that sounds like death: “I know my body is just dirty clothes. I’m tired of washing my hands. God, I wanna go home.” But that moment doesn’t feel like an expression if weakness. Instead, the mere fact that it exists says a whole lot about Baker’s inner strength; these can’t be easy things to sing. And by rendering these feelings in these plain and spare melodies, she’s passing that strength onto the rest of us. There is every chance that you need an album like this in your life, even if you don’t know it yet.
Sprained Ankle is out 10/23 via 6131 Records. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Joanna Newsom’s sparkling, elaborate, lovestruck Divers.
• Pure Bathing Culture’s sharp, tuneful, idiosyncratic Pray For Rain.
• Long Beard’s lovely, tingling, reverbed-out Sleepwalker.
• Ty Segall power trio Fuzz’s churning stoner-rocker II.
• Ex-Breathers’ choppy post-hardcore rager Past Tense.
• Haybaby’s sharp, clear indie rock debut Sleepy Kids.
• The Saddest Landscape’s post-hardcore fire-starter Darkness Forgives.
• Beat Connection’s misty electronic popper Product 3.
• Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan & Soulsavers’ Angels & Ghosts.
• Shepherds’ dreamy, wistful Exit Youth.
• Killing Joke’s roiling tribal postpunk comeback Pylon.
• Vhöl’s all-star progressive thrasher Deeper Than Sky.
• Onirik’s black metal blast Casket Dream Veneration.
• Half Moon Run’s bright, upbeat indie rocker Sun Leads Me On.
• Former Mayors Of Liberty leader Kirt Debique’s solo move Things Left Unsaid.
• Hot Chip’s Dancing In The Dark EP.
• D.R.A.M.’s Gahdamn! EP.
• See Through Dresses’ End Of Days EP.