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Sprained Ankle

Heartache and Candor Shine on Julien Baker's 'Turn Out the Lights'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment
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In 2015, seemingly out of nowhere, a nineteen year-old Memphis post-punker by the name of Julien Baker released Sprained Ankle, a collection of songs written with startling awareness and humility that, for the most part, remains absent in much of her peers. Naturally, the blogosphere erupted with adoration - here was a promising young artist that had depth, sustainability, and seemingly little interest in the post-Internet social media sphere - and thus began the meteoric rise of Julien Baker’s (totally deserved) legacy.

It’s almost amusing to consider that throughout the two years that followed Sprained Ankle’s release, someone as private as Baker would quickly become one of the most sought after entities in independent music. If Baker’s songwriting were any indication, forthright lyrics and minimalist guitar would leading to indie-stardom would have been the last thing on her mind. Nevertheless, Baker is a member of the late-millennial generation, so combined with Baker’s irrefutable musical excellence, she garner deep and devout support from any and all who see her (as they should).

But with Baker, there’s an added dimension of fervent devotion - both amongst contemporaries and gatekeepers alike (Matador, NPR, and everyone in-between) - within the indie world. There’s an artist worth talking about, and for once, it seems like there’s enough of a wellspring of talent to continue talking about her, so when we stop talking and move on to whatever artist du-jour may pop up in the interim, Baker’s follow-up will no doubt be exceptional.

And almost to the T, when Baker announced the release date for her sophomore effort, Turn Out the Lights, almost exactly two years following the release of Sprained Ankle, that same adoration returned, and with good reason. While folks within the blogosphere may be quick to move on to something with a little more sheen to it, consistency is what truly builds a legacy, and TOTL  manages to serve as a prime exemplar.

When Baker and her new label, Matador, released TOTL’s lead single, “Appointments,” Baker’s rasped whisper came through singing heart-wrenching thoughts of not living up to another’s standards, failing to understand change over time, and ultimately watching such factors lead into the end of a relationship. All of this on top of Baker’s tastefully minimalist guitar tones, this time accentuated by percussive piano, further extending the sentiments of what is a devastating first taste.

The rest of TOTL follows suit - expanded sound (piano, string arrangements, and woodwind on an instrumental “Over,” which seamlessly leads into “Appointments”), and decidedly more confident (“Turn Out The Lights”), but ultimately plain-speaking lyricism. Baker’s candor has always been her most disarming artistic attribute - just look to the immense pain and visceral imagery of “Shadowboxer” for reference - but on TOTL, she manages to lean into her guitar abilities a little more willingly. The dynamic crescendos of “Shadowboxer” or the subtle overlays of “Sour Breath” further extend Baker’s supreme progression as a lyricist on top of her continued prowess.

While Baker’s musicality may serve as a pleasant surprise on TOTL, her distinct capacity with language continues to be by far and away the most beguiling aspect of any Julien Baker project. Baker’s lyrical depth has hardly been doubted, refuted, or rebuked - and to do so would only serve a contrarian cause - but if there was ever an ounce of musing uncertainty, this album throws any and all cynicism by the wayside.

TOTL is an absolute masterclass in songwriting. Look no further than “Televangelist” for what is one of the strongest exercises in allegorical elocution in recent memory. Wasting no time, Baker opens with “My heart is going to eat itself,” diving headfirst into a hymn of heart broken masochistic martyrdom. Shortly thereafter, Baker utters what may be the greatest line of the year - ”I’m an amputee with a phantom touch / Leaning on an invisible crutch / Pinned to the mattress like an insect to styrofoam / Coming up from my bedroom alone,” - over nothing more than echoing piano. Baker goes straight for the heart, in an attempt to imbue her own anguish.

Turn Out the Lights is truly one of the best albums of 2017. There is no galavanting of gregariousness, no over-saturation of privileged existence, instead, there is only what Baker offers up for those who are willing to receive of her. This album is her via dolorosa, and we are privileged that she would be willing to share it with the world. Julien Baker is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and Turn Out the Lights is simply exquisite.

The Top 30 Records of 2015

Music ListTransverso MediaComment
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3. Beach House - Thank Your Lucky Stars

Thank Your Lucky Stars acts as both an extension of and pivot point for Beach House’s career as a whole. Many may want the band to actively change in a progressive way, but the band chooses to continually broaden their sound in the most familiar and microscopic ways possible instead. Perhaps one of the best integration of all five preceding albums, you hear the metronome, drums are crisper, individual instruments are audible, and Victoria Legrand’s lyrics are unexpectedly discernible at certain points. It's what works for them, and its afforded Beach House the ability to carve out a dream-pop legacy (and avoid becoming a caricature) on their own terms.

 

2. Majical Cloudz - Are You Alone?

Are You Alone? takes off where the Montreal duo’s preceding Impersonator left off; a paradox of bare-bones, minimalist soundscapes ebbing with lush depth that are somehow simultaneously tranquilizing and uplifting. Welsh’s immaculately vulnerable monologues and unflinching vocals are gently bold, and they drive their synth lullabies forward with severe care. It's Welsh at his most overbearing, and yet his tight grip is irresistible. Calculatedly organic, passionately controlled, it’s a journal reading in a dream.

 

 

1. Tame Impala - Currents

Currents is the most adventurous, interesting, and well-produced collection of songs Kevin Parker has created thus far, sitting atop Tame Impala's discography as the most mature and painstakingly crafted iteration in their twisted psych-pop world. From the lush synth tracks that bubble through the mix to his effortless, washed out vocals, every sound is rendered with the utmost care. Currents proves Parker is unable to stick with a certain sound, forever looking for new ways to evolve his ideas and push his project beyond what was expected when Innerspeaker first hit the shelves.

 

Julien Baker's Debut 'Sprained Ankle' Is Painfully Good

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

The world of music adores artists that are seemingly beyond their years – Låpsley, SOAK, Lorde – each has their own unique appeal. But none of those artists have managed to create intimately visceral narratives to the point of worry that Julien Baker has crafted on Sprained Ankle.

Sprained Ankle marks Baker’s official debut release on 6131 Records, an effort that reveals the nineteen year-old Memphis native’s matter of fact assertions of wishing “I could write songs about anything other than death.” A slightly alarming statement coming from someone of her age, Baker weaves private thoughts into vividly bleak accounts of nurses administering sedatives and awaiting the subsequent unconsciousness on “Brittle Bones.” Including lines like “I’m so good at hurting myself,” it begins to paint a perspective of Baker’s intense awareness of the frailty of life.

Tender and inward, Baker’s earnest soprano floats above guitar loops that at certain points actually resemble heartbeats over a rhythm base. Songs like “Good News” really start to give the most barren look into Baker’s psyche: “I know its not important / But it is to me / And I’m only ever screaming at myself in public.” She offers up her startling self-awareness in a poignant manner, and while for others such honesty might be be exultant, for Baker it's unexpected to the point it could frighten some. But that’s the beauty of this record; such fragile narratives offered up by someone so unassuming allows her lyricism to cut to the marrow of anyone listening.

Sprained Ankle ends on a somber note, with a song about addiction (of whose its hard to tell) in “Rejoice,” that offers thinly veiled anger like “Call the blue lights / Curse your name,” and uncertainty, “I think there’s a god / I think he hears either way.” Baker’s detached vocals create an intense empathetic aspect to the track and album as a whole. The album ends with the aptly named “Go Home,” which presents Baker at her least self-conscious yet most apologetic with “Burned out on the edge of the highway / I’m sorry for asking please come take me home.” Being so young and so incredibly mindful of the personal nature of the album, “Go Home” acts as a firm completion of this harrowing announcement of her existence, an end to the first installment of Baker’s emotional outpouring, and a return to solace until the next cathartic release.

Baker’s songwriting is peculiar in the fact that it acts as a sort of a misdirect. Without taking much consideration of the songs, one might assume Baker has an oddly morose outlook on life, with so much focus on the desolate motifs and dying nature of life, however, it should be argued, it actually acts as a foil to that thought. Sprained Ankle presents the unnerving realities of life in an ambient sense, as a sort of celebration of living and having the awareness of knowing this could be the only chance to do so. In turn, it creates one of the most powerful debut records of 2015, and likely the inception of a more fertile and durable career than that of Baker’s counterparts.