Album Review of Julien Baker's Sprained Ankle

By Berlin Howell

Though she and I have played for what seems like a lifetime’s-worth of shows together, I’ve seldom experienced Julien Baker from the confines of a crowd at her show. While the two of us make up one-half of a local Memphis band and shared a house together in Murfeesburo for a few serendipitous months in June earlier this year, I hadn’t seen Julien play live in years.

This changed when I finally attended one of her summer shows, at a humble house party where she played Sprained Ankle live for the small crowd. I was appropriately excited, but wholly underprepared to have my soul crushed. I sat in awe, in unspoken empathy, during the show. Julien is far too honest to avoid transparency. Her cracking voice conveyed every bit of despair that her already harrowing lyrics  could not. Anyone with a heart was bound to have it broken when she sang.    


Sprained Ankle is Julien’s aptly heartbreaking debut, out now on 6131 Records, and life for her has been surreal since January. Seven of the nine songs came out earlier this year to a tremendous local reception, and the full record is making huge waves across the country right now. During October alone, she’s appeared in The New York Times, on Stereogum’s 50 Best New Artists list, and on the cover of the Memphis Flyer.

Sonically, the record stays true to Julien’s strict minimalist mentality. Less is more in every way on each of these songs. The pace from song to song is casually sedated, but often abysmally slow. Without much layering, and with an emphasis on the basics, the album’s sparse instrumentation creates a comfortable nuance. Only the third track “Brittle Boned” and next-to-last track “Vessels” incorporate percussion, so the majority of the record exists in a cold, barren, intimate atmosphere. Consistency is key on this tracklist, relying on ambient guitar, and subdued or impassioned singing.   

Everybody Does” displays Julien’s affinity for the South and the influence of southern music on her songwriting. This song especially calls to mind Johnny Cash’s American Recordings (1994), but since most of the tempos lull, this song is the closest we ever get to up-beat. Vocals are a tricky listen, as Julien sometimes channels the frequently unintelligible Justin Vernon. (Here are a few humorously misheard translations of the lyrics). The refrain cuts deep with its simple delivery: “You’re gonna run when you find out who I am / You’re gonna run, everybody does.” Sprained Ankle’s protagonist is created by pairing lyrics like those with Julien’s haunting portrait on the cover.

Our speaker is a self-proclaimed “marathon runner” as heard on the title track. You can witness in her first official music video Julien dressed head-to-toe in running attire, but their shared stature in no way unifies the persons of Julien and the runner. Julien simply lends her voice and face. References to substance abuse on the album are now simply reminiscent, as Julien is a long time sober. “Good News” tells of being a bother or worry to her friends, when in actuality she is one of the most respected people I have ever known. 

Listening closely to the album, we are told a story, a somewhat subliminal, but continuous and intricate narrative. “Marathon runner, my ankles are sprained,” provides for us the accompanied metaphor, perhaps an allusion to the fabled Grecian. Our runner is not facing 26.2 miles, but struggling to overcome addiction and fighting to be better for herself and her friends. Drugs in her system are personified as the Devil in her arms, saying “feed me to the wolves tonight,” so she is enduring a spiritual battle as well.

 

Her story takes us on a course of events, opening the album with a question to God: “Do you think that there’s a way I could ever get too far?” On the first track, “Blacktop,” she takes us from “all around the South” to the runner’s car wrapped around a streetlamp, and from a spiritual encounter at the site of the wreck to the back of an ambulance. Her metaphorical race is grounded by concrete images, and she runs with endurance despite the injury, her sprained ankle. 

The runner is “shaving off breaths,” on the second track to improve her speed, a morbid image of sacrificing air. She refers to a “you” on every song, and there is ambiguity song by song if “you” is in reference to God or her unnamed love. Religious and romantic love exist in dichotomy, vying for the runner’s singular devotion. Julien and I spent much of the summer debating Calvinism and discussing God, and her faith takes huge precedence in her daily life.


The narrative paints a picture of a chaotic but sterile world in “Brittle Boned,” where she reveals a titular wound that is self-inflicted. We’re taken from a park bench in “Rejoice,” where she laments about her purpose, to the final track, “Go Home,” in a ditch on the side of the road. Sprained Ankle ends not with the runner crossing a finish line, but lying drunken and hopeless, having given up. She asks God for death, screaming to the heavens “I wanna go home,” and the album finishes without resolution. A triumphant climax hints that perhaps she was granted with deliverance, but “Go Home” is open-ended. As the singing closes, piano transitions into the hymn “In Christ Alone” and a static radio broadcast of a sermon buzzes in the background.

Julien and I play in the band Forrister, alongside Matthew Gilliam and David Creech, and though the band has been our primary devotion for the past few years, we won’t be doing much together for quite some time. Sprained Ankle will take priority for the rest of the near future, and when the opportunity presents itself for us to make a Forrister record later down the road, I’m sure we will. 


Berlin Howell is a Sophomore Creative Writing major at Christian Brothers University, an avid music critic, and a staff writer for the Galleon. 

Posted by Josh Colfer at 11:37 AM

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