Although it was constructed in the shadow of great personal pain, Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle is the most uplifting record of the year. An album that was torn into being, it is a singularly traumatised and yet totally transcendent release; one that comes to feel like its own damaged but defiant living thing. It’s a deer locking eyes with a hunter. It’s a bloodied limb forming a fist. And it is, from beginning to end, a masterpiece.
Critics have been quick to make comparisons between Baker and everyone from Sharon Van Etten to Elliott Smith, but in truth, she genuinely sounds like no one else. Her voice has a unique power wholly of its own, and despite the tragedy that laces her delivery on a song like Everybody Does or Blacktop one quickly comes to appreciate the trembling power that lives in the way she bites off her words.
There is a kind of knotty, glass and wire beauty to the entire record; it’s emotive stuff, but it has its own makeshift, ornate power. Rejoice, a prayer that comes to resemble a plea, is charged with a hysterical energy, and the line “I think there’s a God and he hears either way” gains power with every single utterance.
After all, Baker is, amongst many other things, a tremendously powerful wordsmith. “I know I shouldn’t act this way in public/I know I shouldn’t make my friends all worry” she sings on Good News, Sprained Ankle’s blood filled, beating heart. A song as much about struggling with a shaky form of self-respect as it is a ‘love song’, it is a knotted trail of brilliant lyrics. “I’m trying really hard/To keep my nose clean/The blue out of my arms” she sings with a level of honesty so profound it has the power to make an unsuspecting listener flinch.
But again, despite the bristling tragedy that runs throughout the record, ultimately Sprained Ankle leaves the listener empowered. It is an album unlike many others; a testament; a battered and bruised life philosophy. Not only has Julien Baker made it through some dark days, she has returned from the other side with a set of songs in her hands, quivering, ready for you to take.