Today, Aly and I are headed to Chicago to see Julien Baker perform at Lincoln Hall. In preparation and possibly against my better judgment given the multitude of celebrity deaths this week, I revisited my top choice for the best album of 2015, Sprained Ankle, and couldn’t be any more excited to see this young, burgeoning artist tomorrow in a city that I love.
This all came about when I had had a really rough day at work and I was feeling incredibly defeated and totally down and out. Aly offered to give me an early Christmas present and, naturally, I refused until she wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were lying in bed together, talking about the day’s events, when she told me that we would be taking a trip to Chicago in January and, while there, we would be seeing Julien Baker. Even though my excitement to see Baker was through the roof, I had to tell Aly that I didn’t think I was emotionally prepared to deal with what would surely be an incredibly sad, intimate show. But hey, I’m a glutten for punishment and Baker has quickly become one of my favorite sad, singer songwriters.
I first discovered Baker in October when Stereogum nominated the 19 year old’s first release as their choice for album of the week. I had just been talking to a co-worker about how frustrated I had been that I hadn’t really spent much time with new music and, here I was, reading a review about Baker that had me completely floored. The album seemed to promise the incredible sadness I had felt through the year and justify it by taking influence from some of my favorite 90s emo artists that I grew up with. I was feeling nostalgic, a bit sad, and thought, “What the hell? This seems right”. After the title track (video above), I knew I had found the album I had been waiting to hear all year.
Aly had trouble talking to me through the duration of the album and kept asking me if I was okay. I was but I wasn’t. It just hit me at my core. I remember repeating the song “Vessels” (video above) a few times before moving on with the last two tracks of the album. The song structure was simple. It features a simple guitar part heavily drenched in reverb while Baker’s fragile melody carries the song onto another sonic plane. Before hearing this album, I had written a collection of songs that were mostly comprised of simple guitar tracks layered with a loop station and delay. I had started writing vocals for them when I heard Sprained Ankle. Afterwards, I worried that my own fragile vocal delivery was too reminiscent of Baker. After just a few listens, this album had impacted me that much.
Rarely, after finishing an album do I seek out live videos of the artist or go looking for their other projects. It really takes something special to disarm me from my usual routine of simply moving on to the next album or just carrying on with the rest of the day. Baker had me hooked and desperately craving more. Baker playing “Something” (featured above) was the first video I saw of her playing live and had me convinced that I absolutely had to see perform. The fragility in her voice was present in her performance of her music and had me feeling so nostalgic for those basement shows where I saw very similar artists perform in the same manner of what Baker is doing now.
But what struck me most was how relatable Baker is in every way during Sprained Ankle. Her pain is mature and centered around a confliction with her religious upbringing and a fatalistic worldview rooted in reality. This could have easily been an album about a lost love or something similarly trivial. Instead, Baker takes us on an introspective journey of her loss of hope and her acceptance of a bleak worldview at such a young age. But let’s face it, we’ve all been there. There is always a time where we have to consciously shed what we accepted as universal truth and then struggle to find ourselves in the vast, broken world. I may have done this last year or 15 years ago. I may still be coming to terms with that acceptance. And Baker knows exactly how to tell her audience that this confliction is very, very real.
I feel so blessed that an album of this caliber came out when I had never needed it more. Tomorrow, after a week of battling with the unusual emotion of dealing with the loss of three of my idols, I cannot wait to see Baker and shed a few tears at the mutual acceptance that we are all in this together. Whether it be the communal grieving over the loss of celebrities that shaped our youth or the understanding that the world is, in the end, kind of a shitty, sad, but such a beautiful place, Baker’s performance tomorrow will be, in short, cathartic.
Thank you, Julien Baker.