Tender confessional

In a week perusing year-end top 10 lists, it's the suspicion that some artists just got lost in the shuffle which niggles. So it is with the case of Julien Baker, a 20-year-old Tennessee newcomer whom I had never heard of just a week ago.

There's tentativeness in her girlish croon, but also grit and determination. Further research reveals she wrote these songs when the Memphis native uprooted from her hometown, left behind her alt-rock/punk band Forrister and moved to study at Middle Tennessee State University.

The loneliness opened her up and out poured these coruscating missives, originally intended for private consumption. Accompanied mostly by her trusty guitar, she sings like a youthful, higher-register Sharon Van Etten: perfectly paced, lucid and honest to a fault.

"I think there's a God and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain," comes one zinger from Rejoice, which hints at past substance abuse. The modus operandi may be folksy, but the effect is like being on tenterhooks.



    Julien Baker

    6131 Records

    4/5 stars

"Why did you let them leave and then make me stay?" she belts out, referring to "ghosts of my friends" and putting extra emphasis on "stay".

The opening track Blacktop confronts the addiction head-on. "The devil in my arms says feed me to the wolves tonight," she sings, her guitar gently strummed, almost deferential. Her voice barely rises above a whisper and you would be lulled if not for the final punchline that beseeches, "Come visit me/In the back of an ambulance/And a saline communion that I held like a seance".

The vacillation between spleen and self-affirmation kills. Everyone Does is pivoted on a rare clunky sentiment: "You're gonna run when you find out who I am/I know I'm a pile of filthy garbage you will wish you'd never touch."

It's testament to her charisma that the words come across as neither anodyne nor pitiful. Instead, you're likely to want to sing along to the chorus, feeling lighter and freer as you belt out along with her.

"Wish I could write songs about anything other than death" is the opening line of the title track, Sprained Ankle, and one so unexpected and resonant in this long day's journey into night, that you laugh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2015, with the headline 'Tender confessional'. Print Edition | Subscribe