‘Sprained Ankle’ — Julien Baker

Will Langford, Photographer, The Bagpipe

On Julien Baker’s debut, Sprained Ankle, she sings about addiction, love, and death. She’s only 20 years old, but the maturity of her lyrics suggest otherwise. The instrumentation on the album mostly consists of her acoustic guitar accompanied by her powerful voice. It was recorded in such a way that it feels like she’s sitting down across from you, telling her melancholy stories face-to-face. The title track is about a relationship she’s a part of that’s damaged, but she wants to be in it for the long haul; she sings, “Sprinter/ Learning to wait/ Marathon runner/ My ankles are sprained.”

Similar to Nick Drake’s folk ballads, Baker’s passion for her subject material is the most apparent quality here. When she belts out the chorus to “Everybody Does” (“I know myself better than anybody else”) one can’t help having goosebumps. The isolated sound of the recording only adds to this effect, along with the minimalistic approach to the instrumentals, bringing the vocals to the forefront. The songs on Sprained Ankle are so incredibly raw, it often may bring the listener to tears. Baker’s ability to connect with her audience is one not incredibly common in modern singer-songwriter music, and it separates her from most acts today. Her style of writing wouldn’t work with a full band; it requires the intimacy of as few instruments as possible.

“So much I think/ Little I know,” Baker whispers on “Vessels”. What this album lacks in length, it makes up for in substance. At times her guitar work may seem too derivative of the folk masters she looks up to, and occasionally she may be too straightforward with her lyrics. The album ends with a 2-minute long piano outro, and a sample of a preacher dictating a bible verse; perhaps part of her childhood? Maybe, but we may never know. Overall, Sprained Ankle is a powerful debut and one of this year’s most heartbreakingly beautiful records.