Julien Baker has spoken frankly about being queer in the south of America Sachyn

It was on a train to Cambridge that I first heard Sprained Ankle, half-awake and watching morning light flicker erratically down the carriage over-and-over. The debut album of US singer-songwriter and queer musician Julien Baker has received little fanfare in the UK thus far, but deserves our attention for its candid examination of mental health, religion and personal struggles.

From the gentle, humming arpeggio of acoustic guitar that opens the record, I remember being entranced: the green blur seen from the window became a backdrop for sparse, glacial arrangements and Baker’s bruised, raw confessions. If it wasn’t evident enough from the title, the first lines make it clear that this journey isn’t without its pain: “I saw your hand, when I went out and wrapped my car... around the streetlamp,” she sings about a near-death experience on ‘Blacktop’.

This is songwriting at its most uncompromising. Though the artwork is faded out and tinted blue, the world depicted in the music is painfully unfiltered: one where everybody is fatally imperfect and hurting; where relationships are strained; and Baker sits and waits for an answer.

“Rather than shying away from the reality of its themes, the songs tackle them head-on”

Being only twenty when the album was first released in 2015 (it was re-released in March of this year by Matador), Baker has spoken frankly about being queer in the south of America — she told Out magazine in 2016: “I want to be a female artist, and a queer artist, and a Christian artist” — and it’s her willingness to embody different identities that makes her work so compelling.

Though it touches upon religion, it never becomes preachy: instead being a mere reflection of the life of someone who believes. Many of the songs, like the echoing ‘Vessels’, play directly on the conflict between Biblical purity and human imperfection (“my skin is full of black ink”) with affecting results.

Rather than shying away from the reality of its themes, the songs tackle them head-on with such grit you’re surprised someone managed to put these words down on record. ’Everybody Does’ begins with a deceptively upbeat guitar sequence reminiscent of Feist’s '1234' (that-one-from-the-iPod-Nano-advert), only for Baker to say she’s a “filthy pile of wreckage” and resign herself to inevitable abandonment; sung by another artist, the simple refrain of “You’re gonna run” might be a youthful cry of rebellion, but here it sounds tragic, fatalistic and for those who’ve gone through mental health difficulties, starkly relatable.

In the last minute or so, on the harrowing ‘Go Home’, about waking in a ditch, and wishing to go home both in a literal and metaphorical religious sense, Baker begins to play a modern worship hymn (‘In Christ Alone’) on piano, offset against harsh radio static and the muffled sounds of a baptist breacher — a curious accident of the recording process left on record. This collision represents precisely what makes her art so powerful and vital: itself a collision of differing ideas about religion and personal turmoil, mixing crises of faith and crises of self, redemption and self-loathing.

Our struggles, like Baker’s, never exist in isolation. Whatever your stance on God, Sprained Ankle encourages us to acknowledge imperfection and the multiformity of the human experience. It’s an undeniably bleak picture, with only the faintest glimmers of light, like the glow that filtered through the train on that August morning. But from it we can discern much wisdom

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