Julien Baker: The Architecture of a Sad Song


By Brody Coronelli

Sad songs are one of the most powerful forms of emotional currency we have. From The Smiths' self-pitying and misunderstood croon, Elliot Smith's tendency to air on the side of social distance, to Low's sweepingly melancholic, dimly-lit collection of perpetual slow-burners, there's always been a space for songs that wallow in feeling misunderstood, lonely, or just plain blue. I've been a lifelong junkie for songs like these. They're often my favorite moments on an album, and the ones that stick with me long after the last song has faded out, and I'm back in my body. So you can imagine how full of reverie I was when I came across Julien Baker. 

I found Baker's debut LP Sprained Ankle sometime late last year, after it was re-released on 6131 Records. I was immediately sucked into an irresistibly bleak, sweeping, and cathartic album; a skeletal collection of achingly poetic and flawlessly performed songs that occupied the spaces between desperation, spirituality, insecurity, and loneliness. With the ambience of an empty white room and the faint, ghostly echoes of harmonies and instrumental accompaniments bound to the background, these songs put Baker's technically astonishing and emotionally striking vocals to the forefront, backed only by her reverb-laced, no-frills guitar picking. These are sad songs in their truest, most electrifying form; a form uniquely unmatched by any artist I've ever heard.

Whether it's healthy or not (it isn't), Sprained Ankle has stayed in heavy rotation for quite some time. The spiritually strained "Rejoice" made me-- a convicted and enthusiastic non-believer-- sympathize with what it's like to be in the throes of God's often cold yet mending grip. "Something" vividly threw me into the starry aftermath watching someone close drive away, leaving you on your own. "Everbody Does" made me feel intimate with Baker's own insecurities, as well as bringing light to my own. Sprained Ankle has been a loyal companion in my car and on the playlists I make for when I'm laying awake in bed and can't keep my synapses from crashing into each other. 

In more ways than one, Julien Baker has mastered the architecture of a sad song. All of it's subjective nuances, jagged yet tender edges, and desperation are on full display when she picks up a guitar, steps towards a microphone, and opens her mouth. I had a chance to see her live performance last month, which elevated my praises of her to the cosmos. Not only is she a brilliant songwriter, but technically, she's one of the best solo performers I've ever seen grace the stage. Her haunting vocal acrobatics are a band of her own, and the power behind her presence is enough to fill a room from top to bottom with the flickering glow of heartache. She plays every song, every chord, every note with the immediacy of someone desperately trying to escape from a burning car, coated in the glare of headlights. 

As a longtime sad song junkie, Julien Baker has reinvented the extent to which I thought feeling affected by music could reach. In a world of dime-a-dozen singer/songwriters, her music is a glaring revelation. I'm eagerly awaiting her second LP Turn Out The Lights, due this October on Matador. If the sweeping, harmony-driven lead single "Appointments" is any indication, she's yet to lose the spark she captured on Sprained Ankle. If anything, it's multiplied.