Julien Baker is one of us. She’s a student at Middle Tennessee State University and though she’s not old enough to legally drink, she’s seen more darkness and fright then most people face before they die. Sprained Ankle is the result of icy isolation, a life adrift in limbo, away from beloved friends and purpose.
The title track of the album is a wonderful and slow-burning affair. There are no drums, the track being tugged along by two delicately plucked heartbeats: one steely and tiptoed, the other warm and lingering. As the song progresses, layers fall into place and a mosaic wonder comes to creation. Reverb echoes about like organ in a church hall, Baker’s own ghostly vocals haunt along the background, more guitar patterns mingle in and swelling bits of string orchestration fill every sonic space. The majesty is in the music, but the pain and power is tucked between gentle breaths. The verses contain the sting of a life already over, youth having been choked out by depression. The metaphor of “Sprained Ankle” is contained in the very last lines of lyric, “Marathon runner, my ankles are sprained.” Life is long enough to hurt and tough enough to break even the best of us, but Baker (and many of us) must race along with the extra burden of a heavy heart, so that each step is pained no matter the pace. The distant hope is that we’ll all triumphantly finish sooner or later, intact or in pieces.
The rest of the subject matter mentioned within the album is vast and dark, filled with early morning intrusive thoughts and moments of mental unsettle: loneliness, the fear that comes with weakness and physical frailty, the lasting ruin of substance abuse and addiction, the questioning of a once-sound faith. The record is undeniably sad, each song shivering little bits of your skull, piece by piece, one verse at a time. Most of the time, daggers are slipped through whispers; the most powerful moments are when Baker enters trances of roaring emo intensity like in “Rejoice” and “Something.” Even so her shouts are melodic, pretty even. The record never stops being beautiful.
The aforementioned “Something” is another standout. It is the longest song and details the inevitable and slow tear of two people once inseparable. The song is driven by hollow and distant guitars reminiscent of Explosions In The Sky. Baker’s vocals are especially cavernous in this track, mimicking the stubborn and lingering bits of memory. Here we see Baker at her most intense, this song providing the most raw and emotional vocals on the album.
The last song ends in static, mysterious interference from an evangelical radio station. A preacher is shouting, triumphantly and zealously, with all the glory he can muster. And though the half hour before was somber, the last few seconds are golden and hopeful. Doubts and demons are washed away and we know that as the distant voice fades out to nothing, we’ll be okay.
In the end, the album is not about being sad or being hurt. It’s about overcoming those handicaps. Beneath the icy bite of anguish, below the loneliness and sickening sad, there is faith. Not in a happy ending, but in inner strength, that will to go on and live.