Julien Baker was a part of an alternative rock band called Forrister. She has since split from Forrister to write her own music. Her solo album, Sprained Ankle, reveals the struggles and hope of a unique and genuine individual through the medium of ambient indie rock.
The instrumentation for Sprained Ankle is minimalistic. Usually it is limited to a simple acoustic or electric guitar, bass, piano and occasionally some drums. It has a calming effect, making it ideal, in my experience, for study music. However, the poetry and message behind the music is what makes Sprained Ankle exquisite.
It is extremely clear through the lyrics and emotion of Julien’s album that this young lady’s life has not been an easy one. Her music is like a raw, open wound. Baker is brave to share her past of self harm, substance abuse and loss of loved ones in her lyrics, along with other obviously painful events that I cannot comprehend. Julien’s voice complements the tone of her album. She sings in a simple, emotional and raw voice. She sounds reflective; she sounds distressed, and the broken passion behind her words all but transfers her very emotions to the listener. Even though not everyone can relate to Julien’s specific issues, it is easy to empathize with her emotions and struggles in some manner.
The title track of the album, “Sprained Ankle,” is a short piece of about two minutes. The instrumentation is limited to a laid-back baseline and fingerpicking from the guitar. The lyrics are ambiguous enough to be interpreted in numerous ways, but the key phrase, “A marathon runner, my ankles are sprained” translates to me as a feeling of inadequacy. This particular song has a music video in which Julien stands in a track suit in the middle of a warehouse that has been trashed. Tables, chairs and other assorted things are strewn about, and the walls are highly graffitied. It’s a simple video to match the unembellished music and lyrics, and yet it communicates the feeling of being surrounded by a mess and feeling absolutely hopeless in her situation.
Although Julien shares much of her pain, she also shares her faith, giving the album a quality almost like a testimony. In addition, on the final track of the album, the piano plays out with a beautiful rendition of “In Christ Alone.” After this courageous woman has exposed her deepest struggles, she provides a reminder. It’s a reminder to listeners, for sure, but it also feels like a reminder to herself, that in Christ, hope can be found.
Julien Baker’s music is easy listening that provides calming study music or a nap-time atmosphere, but further delving into the meaning and message of the album provides an experience, a chance to re-discover how good God really is even when everything else sucks.