In the first scene of High Fidelity John Cusack’s character reels off a monologue comparing a culture of violence to pop music. “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss.” And, despite the fact it’s tacky as hell, it does beg for a debate about the purpose and presence of sad music in young people’s lives.
A debate reinforced by timeliness as Elliott Smith’s seminal ‘Either/Or’ celebrates its 20th anniversary as does Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’. Both albums have provided immeasurable solace and companionship for thousands of people across two decades. I don’t take this comparison lightly when I say that Julien Baker’s ‘Sprained Ankle’ feels like a spiritual successor to these masterworks.
Sonically resembling Smith more so than Yorke, Julien’s nine track document rarely divert from intertwining trebly guitars, warm bass whirrs and a notable absence of percussion and drums. And like Elliott, these instrumentals, though similar in technical structure, all evoke an emotional reference in tandem with the stories and experiences that Julien shares.
The first line of ‘Sprained Ankle’, Julien weightily sighs, “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death”. It feels closer to wry humour than un-ironic misery but that doesn’t equate to a lack of sincerity - I’d argue categorically that it supposes the opposite.
Remorse, solace and unhappiness is baked immovably into tracks like ‘Everybody Does’, which articulates a painfully accurate mental dialogue of feeling abandoned. However, the nature of the songs, though autobiographical, isn’t confessional. Julien doesn’t wear her woes on her sleeves to flag down pity, she forges them into gauntlets to brandish the strength of vulnerability.
Sadness is a communal adhesive and Baker’s music taps into the instinctual part of us that musters empathy. While many songwriters distance themselves from their stories, opting for vaguer lyrics to protect themselves, Julien involves herself admirably.
‘Something’, for example, unpacks the gut-wrenching feeling of l'esprit d'escalier – thinking of a perfect reply too late. “I know you're sleeping by now, but I'm still up walking around. The walls of my skull bend backwards and in like a labyrinth”.
‘Rejoice’ is a track about feeling grateful and building fortitude as a result of terrible things. It’s wrapped in a theodicy but lines like “And somebody's listening at night with the ghosts of my friends when I pray, asking Why did you let them leave and then make me stay? Know my name and all of my hideous mistakes”.
The honesty is stark, the music compelling and the delivery is earnest. At the very least, Julien, like Elliott and Radiohead before her, makes sad music to inspire compassion.
Words: Will Butler
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