What a dream of a landscape we wander through when we listen to Julien Baker’s debut album, ‘Sprained Ankle’. Her album, initially self-released on Bandcamp before she signed with a record label a year later, is based around enduringly minimalist patterns and the layering of guitars and occasional keys over a single unfailing vocal line.
There is no over-performing on this album. Every note is necessary and rings out in the calming silence. It is a remarkable talent that a gentle voice over guitar picking can sound as rich as an orchestra. ‘Everybody Does’ is the least minimalist song on the album, although even that isn’t saying much, the only development being that the guitar plucking evolves into strumming and that she reaches into higher notes.
On an unquestioning listen – even after playing the album for hours as comfortable background ambience – the lyrics, crucial as they are, aren’t at the forefront. They’re masked by the intimate whispering of her voice, breathy and accented, not always putting the expected emphasis on each syllable, missing out consonants here and there.
But once you start listening actively to the lyrics, there is an aching lyrical ingenuity in the relatable phrases. Her title track, a partial self-reflection on the process of song-writing, is especially full of such little moments: ‘Whenever I’m alone with you, can’t talk but “Isn’t this weather nice? Are you okay?”’. For a song writer so young, her intimacy on subjects on everything from car crashes to drug addiction is refreshing, hard hitting lyrics disguised by the gentleness of her voice, particularly in the stunning repeating refrain of ‘Good News’: “I know I shouldn’t make my friends all worry / When I go out at night / And grind my teeth like sutures / My mouth like a wound”.
Faith, too, is an underlying motif which arises through the album. In ‘Rejoice’ she questions the darkest and most difficult terms of her life, and still is able to be grateful to a god through it all: “I rejoice, I rejoice”. It is a subject that often poses one of the most difficult challenges to believers and nonbelievers, yet she tackles it with grace and strength. There is an exquisite moment at the end of her final song ‘Go Home’ where the song trails off into a piano arrangement of a church hymn from her childhood. In the background the sound of a preacher talking on church radio reverberates. Amazingly, the effect is completely unintentional; the pre amp just happened to pick up the radio during recording, and the sample was left in due to its organic effect.
There’s a gap in contemporary music for this style of minimalist song writing, and we’ll hopefully see an awful lot more of Julien Baker in the coming years should she choose to stay on the unexpected path that her sudden fame has given her. But even if the Memphis songwriter returns to her studies (she’s a self-confessed “geek” taking time out of university to tour) and chooses to slip out of the limelight as quietly as she entered, this release is bound to remain a beautifully influential scar on the face of indie folk.
‘Sprained Ankle’ is out on the 17th March 2017 via Matador Records.