It is no secret that music can connect with the listener in a myriad of ways, whether by beckoning joyful memories or poking unsealed wounds. For better or worse, it is a profound communicator. But for each of its endeavours to leave an impression, there’s a moment that’s seldom recreated. It’s that small frame of time where everything is silent apart from the breaking voice of the singer and the soft strum of the guitar. Songs such as Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” or Brand New’s “Limousine” are notorious for evoking this haunting despondency. Sprained Ankle, the debut release by singer/songwriter Julien Baker, invokes this void through nine tracks of adolescent pain and hardship. Yet, despite this rather unalluring description, this may be one of the most beautiful debut records in years.
“Blacktop” introduces the album by way of a softly plucked guitar and shaky vocals as Baker pleads for a visit from God in an ambulance after having been in a car accident. The silence in the background paired with the echo of the vocals gives the song a painfully hollow and personal feel. The title track deviates slightly from this simplistic approach by using a repeated harmonic riff to create a melancholy ambience. Baker lays her struggles bare as she describes depression, self-doubt, and inadequacy through the metaphor of a sprinter whose ankle is sprained. Should I go somewhere else and hide my face? / A sprinter learning to wait, a marathon runner, my ankles are sprained.
The majority of songs on Sprained Ankle provide a sparse difference in variation as they often follow and build on a single note. Songs such as “Brittle Boned” and “Good News” primarily develop, not through musical additions or swells, but through the growing emotional weight of the vocals. “Brittle Boned” employs a slowly looped guitar as Baker describes a mysterious medical haze as the album’s protagonist lies on a hospital bed. Her vocals sound distant and muffled before developing into an exhaustive cry. Likewise, “Good News” crawls at an unchanging pace as Baker releases bottle up secrets of believing she is an inconvenience to her friends and family due to her struggling addiction. I’m trying really hard to keep my nose clean / The blue out of my arms / But it’s not easy / It’s not easy when what you think of me is important and I know it shouldn’t be.
Depressing music sometimes has the tendency to appear self-indulgent or even ignorant of God’s love and redemption. While one could bring this objection to Sprained Ankle, it would be a massive disservice to the redemptive beauty that underscores these seemingly pessimistic tunes. For example, “Rejoice” places its focus on the hope of God simply listening to both our worship and our hatred amidst a failed fight. I wish I could quit but I can’t stand the shakes / Choking smoke, singing your praise / But I think there’s a god and he hears either way / I rejoice, and complain / I never know what to say.
“Go Home” closes the album on a bittersweet note. It tells a story of substance abuse, addiction, and finally exhaustion towards life itself. I know that my body is just dirty clothes / I’m tired of washing my hands and I wanna go home. A lone piano carries the song to a close before transitioning into a rendition of the beloved hymn “In Christ Alone.” During this, the sound of a preacher sharing Christ crucified plays faintly in the background. It was noted that this was entirely unintentional and recorded by accident as the preamp picked up signals of a Christian radio station. Some may interpret this as a mere coincidence, but it’s difficult to deny any sense of a divine hand here.
As a music critic, there are a severely limited number of albums I would recommend to anyone, regardless of genre preference, to listen to at least once. Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle is one of those albums. It exposes the fears of self-worth we all hide and it invites us to share them openly. There’s a subtle comfort in the unrelenting sadness, a relief in bringing to light a desperate need to share our pain with another. There’s no conclusive deliverance on this album, and that’s ok. Pain is a companion that’ll follow us until we’re made new in the arms of Christ. Redemption isn’t found in denying this, but in realizing that God is always there in the midst of it. He listens when we praise and He listens when we complain. It’s a truth we all need to hear, and I can’t think of a better album to share it.
5/5 (Updated 13/01/18)