Trying to keep up with new records often feels like trying to plug a dam with a piece of chewing gum; the deluge is going to keep happening whether you like it or not, and you’re going to miss some things. The Slow Burn is our column where writers talk about albums they “missed”—which in today’s music Twitter era, could mean they didn’t listen to it in the 5 days around when it came out—and why they regret they didn’t get to the album till now. This edition covers Julien Baker’s 2015 album, Sprained Ankle.
Sometime between the third and fourth “I can’t think of anyone, anyone else” of this video of Julien Baker performing “Something” on OurVinyl Sessions, I went from being ambivalent to Baker to being convinced I was seeing the new Fiona Apple, Cat Power, or Dashboard Confessional (yeah I said it) of a new generation. “Something” is a “naked” song in a way that songs that get called “naked” often aren’t; it’s all small details, and it’s all about frayed emotions. Baker recreates walking off a breakup in a parking lot, by assuring herself she knew the breakup was coming, by feeling anguished that she couldn’t come up with something to say. All you ever really want in an argument is to say the right thing, and that’s the thing that crushes Baker the most. “Should have said something, something something, couldn’t find something to say, so I just said nothing, said nothing, said nothing,” she sings here, in raw immediacy. “Something” is a powerhouse; it’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve listened to it 300 times since I listened to it that first time two weeks ago.
The small details of giant heartbreak are what ultimately drew me in to Sprained Ankle. But it’s also a concept breakup album about a woman who is making a breakup album during a breakup.“Spilling my guts, sweat on a microphone, breaking my voice,” she sings on the title track. “Whenever I’m alone with you, can’t talk but, “Isn’t this weather nice? Are you okay?” She can process her feelings for the person who is in the process of leaving her—and leaving her an emotional, raw nerve—into song, but can’t do it in conversation. Baker wrote most of these songs in small music rooms at night on the college campus in Tennessee where she goes to school while avoiding being stuck in her dorm room. And listening to this knowing that, you can envision her screaming these lyrics into soundproofed walls and music stands.
So, how did it take me four months since release for me to get to Sprained Ankle? It seems like it’s in my wheelhouse, right? And didn’t Tyler Barstow write an article about Sprained Ankle, and how it effected him a couple months ago? I don’t have a really good excuse; a small, but vocal, group of people were enthusiastic about her on my Twitter feed, but not enough to make me feel like I was missing something. Plus, when I saw her get hype, I read Ian Cohen’s review in Pitchfork, and I learned, once and for all, that his taste and mine do not line up in any significant way (I should have known after his Das Racist reviews).
But the point of Slow Burn is that we’re celebrating getting to stuff, because what’s important is actually getting to it. Sprained Ankleis delicate but raw, full of death but life-affirming, spacious but closed in and introspective. I regret that I didn’t get to Sprained Ankle sooner—I also wonder what kind of havoc it would have wreaked on my albums of the year list. But I also don’t know that I was ready to be as obsessed with watching dozens of live takes of “Something” in October as I am in January, when it’s cold and there’s nothing to do, and I have a better ability to—thanks to seasonal affective disorder—get down in my feelings. And nothing has me down in my feelings more than Sprained Ankle right now.