There was a time in high school when I crafted a playlist specifically with songs to mope over. The act of purposely feeling gloomy wasn’t flattering. And in hindsight, the song choices made me cringe. Where others brooded over Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” or Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” the not-so-well-versed 16-year-old me felt the need to pump tracks from Evanescence, blink-182, and Coldplay. At least I knew that “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. was a thing back then, or I could never forgive my young self’s bland music taste.
Yet if a Singer-Songwriter like Julien Baker came along around that time of imagined emotional turmoil, I would’ve been set song-wise. Sprained Ankle is the amalgamation of several points of sadness, and in connecting the dots of each song, it becomes clear that the record is a testament to the drive of fighting emotional demons. Baker talks about church in ways that are unlike tracks from the Hillsong Church. Her relationship with the Big Guy above is less about worship and more about finding peace, even with life being hellish. The album, though simple in its guitar-work, is not meant to be a goldmine of melancholy fragments; it’s instead meant to be a piece that connects people with others facing trying times.
Think of the voice that guides Sprained Ankle as a mixture of Lorde and Lucy Rose. This blend also contains within it the quality of an anxious Bandcamp project. All that said, when Baker begins with “Blacktop,” the singer creates imagery that the aforementioned artists would kill to demonstrate in their own works. She builds the night to recreate the time she experienced a car crash, talking about meeting her caretakers in the ambulance where she is having a “saline communion.” And in that period of near-death, she can’t help but think of mortality and how it can elicit the brightness of harmonic notes and baroque strings (“Sprained Ankle”), cueing in the idea that her sound is more than simple strums across plain chords.
When the more country-sounding “Everybody Does” kicks in, Baker shows that she’s not quiet in her predicament but absolutely overtaking of space when she opens her mouth to hit high notes. The heightened crescendo shows what she talks about when she claims that those in public are alienated by her bottled-up diatribes (“Good News”). The pained voice within her feels like it might crumble or quiver in “Something.” The lightness of each electronic swirl and guitar note is a gigantic splash from a puddle that she happens to walk beside.
But “Rejoice” manages to capture power from the depths of Baker’s tormented heart. The kind of pain from break ups, a car crash, drugs, and constantly smelling the deathly hospital air is projected onto the singer’s voice as something with a fighting spirit to it. Jeff and Tim Buckley would cry to hear her volume reach a height that doesn’t offend. Alongside the indie guitar, Baker sings about not finding the words to say to a god above. She sings to the spirits of the Buckleys and with them. And even though “Vessels” is dull, she manages to do well with the piano-filled “Go Home,” a song that pumps enough depression fuel to crush Debbie Downers and rend those with a penchant for positivity into a state of numbness. Baker sings that her “body is just dirty clothes” and that her blood has been replaced by whiskey. She drags listeners down to her personal hells, but not before tuning a radio in to a religious broadcast.
I contacted Baker on the effect of Sprained Ankle on me. She said that one of life’s precious gifts is to feel comfort and/or encouragement in music. Simple but true words from someone who has created one of 2015’s best sleeper records.
Dustin Ragucos is a writer of things fictional, poetic, and musical. His main loves include Death Grips and Indie music. Dustin’s blog is host to a weekly blurb about albums old and new.