For years now I’ve seen the cover to Julien Baker’s 2015 album in random flashes across the internet, and it’s perpetually eluded me. It became one of those “mythical” bits of media that I saw everywhere, then suddenly disappeared from my mind.
Aside from the surprisingly-pervasive photo, I didn’t know anything about the record: I didn’t know who Julien Baker was, what genre she played, or if this album was even any good. I assumed it was, but I had zero context to go on, only this cover. It became one of those things that you see so often that you just assume it’s great but never look into. In 2017 I finally sat down to listen to the album and since then I’ve been kicking myself for taking so long.
Sprained Ankle is one of the single most impactful, graceful, flawless, and magnificent records I’ve ever heard in my life. Period.
It’s an album that’s great on first listen, and gets even better with each subsequent spin. Baker’s effortless balance between singer-songwriter folk and finger-plucked emo is an enchanting combination that makes for a grounded and heavy listen.
It’s definitely not a “fun” album in any sense of the word. It’s an album about God, death, and anxiety. On the second track (after which the album is named), she opens with the line “wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” That’s as close to humor as we get in the album’s 33 minute and 33 second running time, and even then it’s still a line about death that hits you like a punch in the gut.
Baker’s voice remains prominent in every song, laid bare near the top of the mix and paired well with her own guitar and little else. It sounds like you’re listening to a girl playing songs alone in her room just for herself. It almost feels invasive to listen to, but you can tell the contents of the album would have come out with or without your intrusion.
It’s a deeply personal album about everything dark in the world. It’s an album of purity in an impure world. It’s haunting and striking. It will stay with you after your first listen like a ghost. It sounds like someone wringing their soul dry into a bucket. It’s one of the most majestic and soul-crushing things I’ve ever heard in my life and remains just as impactful after dozens of repeated listens.
Julien Baker is a woman of few words. Amongst the album’s short nine tracks you’ll find only a handful of topics. You get the sense that these songs were carefully-selected and lovingly-crafted over time until they formed a single honed point. The fact that she’s just now revving up to drop her second album over two years later is a testament to her thoughtfulness.
Sprained Ankle is unlike anything I’ve ever heard, yet it feels immediately familiar. It’s an album about a universal topic delivered in a straightforward way. The universal of pain. It connects right away and doesn’t stop until the vibrations of Baker’s piano are overwhelmed by the dark static surrounding her on the final track. It’s an album that’s easy to grasp upon first listen, but slowly reveals its sublime intensity to those who listen closely.
Julien Baker is a beautiful person with a beautiful soul, and that fact shines through the pain and the sparseness of Sprained Ankle. It’s hard to put the feeling of the album into words, but it’s an experience that has transcended music for me. She has a way with words, melody, and sound that all come together into this perfect package.
I’m writing this because I feel like I have to. I’ve been so deeply moved and affected by this record that I just need to document my thoughts on it in the best way that I know how. It’s unreal.
It hurts to listen to. It hurts to be away from. And it hurts to be without.
It’s a carefully-constructed album about loss.
About the blunt faceless pain of anxiety.
It’s stark beauty in its rawest form.
It’s Sprained Ankle.