Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle is part of the same artistic class as works like Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream; they’re brilliant and heartbreaking, and you’d be forgiven for only wanting to consume them a single time. Baker’s debut is so raw and empathetic that it feels less like she’s telling you her story and more like you’re crawling into her skin. The moment you press play on the album these songs aren’t about her sorrows, they’re yours.
As a southern, queer singer-songwriter who embraces Christianity, Baker is a naturally unique and compelling figure, but on record these facts about her come up subtlety and organically while you’re busy being swept away by her incredible attention to detail and gorgeous voice.
Baker originally released Sprained Ankle back in 2015, with the record now being reissued on Matador. Despite being a year and a half old, nothing about the album feels dated. Baker proves that, if done right, the confessional singer-songwriter album never really goes out of style.
There are shades of contemporary emo in the nakedness of Baker’s emotions and her economical eight-note strumming patterns (think The Hotelier or Pinegrove), but her message might be even more resonant because she forces you to lean in to hear it, never raising her voice to get a point across. Baker is both capable of creating tremendously evocative scenes with sparse description – on ‘Blacktop’ she sings “So I wrote you love letters / And sung them in my house / And all around the South” – while also nailing minute, nuanced emotions on tracks like ‘Good News.’ “In the thin air my ribs creak / Like wooden dining chairs when you see me / Always scared that every situation ends the same / With a blank stare,”she sings.
Given Baker’s tremendous vocal gifts it’d be interesting to see her atop a more diverse set of instrumentals, something more in the realm of Mitski or Japanese Breakfast, but the palette of Sprained Ankle is so firmly established that even the slightest deviation feels monumental. When the record closes with the piano centric ‘Go Home’ it casts Baker in a completely new light, ending the understated album with a dramatic flourish.
At times, Sprained Ankle feels less like an album than a Kenneth Lonergan tragedy of broken people and their fragile spirits, but it’s a testament to Baker’s significant talent that this simple, intimate record is so brutally compelling. It’s a record equal parts beautiful and devastating, straight-forward in its execution but psychologically complex in its impact.
When Baker sings lines like “I know myself more than anybody else / And you’re gonna run / You’re gonna run when you find out who I am / I know I’m a pile of filthy wreckage / You will wish you never touched”, on the agonising ‘Everybody Does,’ you can’t help but find yourself wondering if you’re that corrosive too, even if nothing in you history could ever lead to that conclusion. It’s not a feeling you’ll wan to stew in for too long, but it’s one that Baker makes feel absolutely essential.