"Wish I could write songs about anything other than death," Julien Baker sang as the very first line of the very first song (Sprained Ankle) of her heartbreaking and beautiful set last night at Aisle 5. Wearing a tee-shirt with the words, "Sad Songs Make Me Feel Better," she proceeded to perform those songs that she wrote about death, and also about fragility and addiction and the grace of God.
It was transcendent even when it was depressing.
Atlanta's Old Sea Brigade, led by the vocals and guitar of Ben Cramer, opened with a spare set of introspective songs, dedicating their song Georgia to Baker, who returned the favor during her set and dedicated a song to them.
Julien Baker took the stage alone, without a band or much equipment on her stage, just a mic stand and a guitar amp. The stark setting befitted the vulnerable nature of her voice and songwriting, leaving her nowhere to hide as she sang her personal and intimate songs. She had the filled-to-capacity Aisle 5 audience spellbound and quiet, entranced as we were by the spell of her songs.
In Everybody Does, she sang,
I know I'm probably a filthy wreckage you would wish you'd never touch
You're gonna run, you're gonna run, when you find out who I am
You're gonna run, you're gonna run, it's alright, everybody does.
without sounding self-pitying or indulgent, just painfully honest and exposed. Her songs would be downright depressing if it weren't for the beatific nature of her singing and the stark beauty of her amplified guitar, and we were relieved to hear her humor and apparent good will during her stage banter - it would be unbearable to think that she was really that sad and despairing in real life.
The Aisle 5 audience was quite young (it was an all-ages show) and I was heartened to see such a young crowd so respectful and so engaged by challenging songs about such difficult subject matter.
Julien Baker's debut album, Sprained Ankle, was released last October, but still managed to make several critic's Best Of 2015 lists. Reviewing the album in StereoGum, Gabriela Tully Claymore wrote,
To say that Sprained Ankle is “devastating” is a gaping understatement. This is the type of album that opens up like a sinkhole and drags you into an emotional wellspring before you have a second to recognize how bottomless Baker’s heartbreak is. Sprained Ankle is heavy, heavier than seems possible for her numbered years on this earth, a collection of life events retold in shadowy detail. Those vague shapes begin to take a more concrete form the second, third, fourth time you listen to the album. Baker’s lyricism is unabashedly explicit, and Sprained Ankle discusses depression, substance abuse, and general crises of faith in detail and her admissions are brave. Baker speaks to God directly throughout (“I think there’s a God and he hears either way/ When I rejoice and complain”) and is finally answered on the album’s closer, Go Home.
Last night, for her encore, Baker performed Go Home, with its references to drinking bleach and closing lines "I know my body is just dirty clothes; I'm tired of washing my hands and I wanna go home."
Since the release of Sprained Ankle and its critical acclaim, Baker has been invited to perform at a number of this year's music festivals, including Atlanta's Shaky Knees. After the quiet intimacy of her Aisle 5 set, it's hard to picture a noisy and distracted festival crowd appreciating her songs, but after watching Baker last night, I'm starting to wonder if there's anything she can't do.