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I was at a small house party this past Saturday night in south Denver and it was one of those Fall nights that takes her time to say what’s been on her mind. Long sentences and whiskey cider and clotting near a campfire to catch up and talk shop with a mixture of close friends and people I’ll probably never see again. It’s the usual fare around here once you’ve moved into the cozier confines of post-mid-twenties life choices and social circles. It's a much calmer, more reflective crowd.
After the formalities of host handshakes and finding a drink, I dug into a conversation with a couple fellow Southern Imports about the role of art and the importance, if any, of our personal involvement therein. 2nd-semester-Sophomore-stuff I know, but how else are you going to burn through a weekend night in the suburbs. I won’t bore you with details, but it sparked a much quieter thought on my drive home that resurfaced again today when I first heard Julien Baker’s new record Sprained Ankle. This: so many of us are in real, unironic pain with no clear way out. Life never quite kicks its habit of not working out. And after all of the hoopla of philosophical debate and existential crises we are, perhaps unfixably, still very much in the Dark.
Most of us were probably told at one point or another about the importance of having our heart broken. It’s become one of the Four Noble Truths of Figuring It Out, the at-times-disappointingly-sloppy proto gospel us late twenty/early thirty year olds preach to each other when given the right conversational segues and cues. I think we just made it up, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. There’s something undeniably important in reaching the end of yourself for the first time and feeling the muffled exhaustion that comes with it. Something necessary in living within that mundane, uncomplicated Lack. Something sacred in the sadness accompanying it that eats you slowly with a spoon. You eventually realize of course that this sort of thing will happen to you over and over again in a variety of different ways and that “growing up” has much more to do with learning to live with your hunger than it does with doing your own taxes or being able to afford the right-sized house. But all of that comes later. In the beginning, it's only important that it happens and that you're paying attention when it does.
From the sound of it, Julien Baker has just gone through a particularly difficult version of that and Sprained Ankle is the collection of stories she lived to tell. It’s somber, in a cold evening sort of way, and it’s full of that rich and haunting absence that made For Emma Forever Ago so profound. There’s also a sprinkling of David Bazan-ish honesty that’s a punch in the gut every time it shows up. This album is humble and stunning. A willing portrait of the beauty in a breakdown and the first careful movements of hope. A patient attention to personal flaws and finding the medicines you badly need.
And Julien Baker understands the elegant uncertainties shared between our deepest fears, questions, and truths. She knows our capacity for self-inflicting misery, and our need to find our way home. And she's patiently woven all of those things into an unassuming masterpiece that has quickly taken over as my current favorite record. Hopefully, this is the first of many more albums from her.
You can listen to Sprained Ankle below:
Tyler is the co-founder of Vinyl Me, Please. He lives in Denver and listens to The National a lot more than you do.