Julien Baker's cautious optimism

Memphis native explores agony and atonement on debut album

Julien Baker didn't think anyone other than a few friends and family members would ever hear the frail songs she wrote in the quiet of her Middle Tennessee State University dorm room. But the songs — obsessed with the visceral consequences of depression and addiction — became the 20-year-old guitarist's debut record that wound up on countless 2015 year-end lists. Sprained Ankle is a brutal confession of past transgressions, Baker's complicated relationship with God, and the necessity of hope among the admission of despair.

The record is an intense listen as Baker's impassioned tales of car wrecks and hospital beds wade through the depths of routine teenage angst into more gut-wrenching territory. "When I was writing Sprained Ankle I was less conscious of how it was going to be received because I didn't think it was going to be received by anyone," Baker says. "I think that afforded more artistic license to be honest about crushing things that I wouldn't have said if I'd known how it was going to be received."

Her sparse guitar strums are the foundation for her tear-soaked words, spoken without the comfort of flowery abstractions. On the title track she deadpans, "Wish I could write songs about anything other than death," a lyric that could almost inspire a laugh if not for the bleakness of its sincerity.

Given her macabre fascination with the many facets of emotional pain, it almost sounds like someone else is talking when Baker bubbles over with glee about growing up and developing her voice in Memphis. Her entry point into music started with the oft-forgotten alliance between church and straight-edge punk ideology. A booking organization called Smith7 organized DIY shows for underage bands at churches and community centers, creating a substance-free space where local musicians including Baker and her friends spent many of their evenings. "I feel like punk gets written off as nihilistic or destructive because of the whole Sex Pistols ethos and you see that grow into the violence of the hardcore scene," Baker says. "What was cool about having something like Smith7 was learning early on that it didn't have to be like that, and that bands helped each other instead of in the commercial view of things where you cut everyone down to get a leg ahead."

Between fiddling with the chords to Green Day's "American Idiot" in her room and finding like-minded musicians, Baker, describing her teenage self as having a "mohawk that turned into a rat tail," played in church bands and developed a positive relationship with the church without shedding her punk roots. "It was good because it afforded me a different look at church other than conservative traditional religious culture and it opened up a community of musicians and people within the church family who were perhaps more progressive in their applied understanding of religious concepts like grace," she says.

Though lyrics about spilling guts and comparisons to "filthy wreckage" suggest otherwise, grace and community underscore the record's palpable darkness. With the song "Rejoice," Baker outlines her restrained faith after lamenting her ambiguous addiction and calling out to the ghosts of friends, "I think there's a god and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain."

Those few and fleeting calls to gratitude give Sprained Ankle a surprising amount of complexity and depth, providing a necessary counterpoint to her vivid descriptions of emotional pain. The record's minimal setup places her lyricism squarely in the middle of every song while the guitar's frail chords and whispered harmonics accent her portrait of agony. The effect of this instrumentation feels like a confessional where the listener plays the priest soaking in Baker's disembodied anguish. "It's a disservice to an audience when all 10 tracks are like 'everything's OK' because it's necessary to write about sadness to validate others with the same experience," she says. "It's also important to include a relevance to the suffering so I try to temper it with maybe not positivity, because I don't know if any of the songs could be described as positive, but a perceivable hope for healing or some sort of recovery."

After mulling over the ratio of blood to whiskey in her veins in "Go Home," Baker teases with a glimmer of hope. A plinking piano plays the melody from "In Christ Alone," a contemporary Christian song affirming faith in Jesus in spite of the "pow'r of hell" and the "scheme of man."

Baker doesn't sing any of the words, though, allowing the lone melody to function as a hint of redemption — a moment of respite closing a meditation on pain.