All That Glitters is Gold - Julien Baker
This is All That Glitters is Gold, a recurring piece about some of my favorite artists, albums, tracks, and live shows. Here I will write about the music I love, most of which inspired me to start Alt Revue in the first place. I'm excited to highlight this music and talk about how it has impacted me. I hope you enjoy getting a glimpse into some of my favorites!
Today I want to talk about one of my favorite alt artists in music today, Julien Baker. When I look at the life and career of Julien Baker, it's hard to believe she is only 23 years old because of how much she has accomplished already. I'd like to take a look at her career so far.
(Photo Credit: Nolan Knight)
Julien Baker is from Memphis, Tennessee and her first release Sprained Ankle came when she was only 18 years old in 2015, and was self-recorded by a friend and her in a matter of days, it was released on 6131 Records. It was received with critical acclaim. Sprained Ankle, features nine songs and is haunting in its simplicity and its beauty. It deals with themes of internal struggle of mental health, sexual orientation, and faith.
Sprained Ankle (2015)
Sprained Ankle starts with "Blacktop" an acoustic track that features Baker's vocals prominently. Her use of religious imagery in this track is so prevalent. One lyric that stands out is "A saline communion that I held like a séance on the blacktop, The devil in my arms says feed me to the wolves tonight".
"Sprained Ankle" begins similarly as mellow as "Blacktop". However, it picks up as the track progresses. Baker laments at the beginning of the song "I wish I could songs about anything other than death". Though, this song seems to be more about hindrance and loss. With Baker comparing herself to a marathon runner with a sprained ankle.
"Brittle Boned" deals with mental health and hospitalization and is a fantastic track that ups the ante lyrically and musically on the album. It is a treasure of a song.
"Everybody Does" is a heartbreaking acoustic track that about the loss of love about after having revealed one's true self. A lyrically deep message that touches the soul when listening. This song features dubbed harmonies that I would love to hear how they sound live.
In "Good News" Baker shows off her patented ability to have such a unique cadence and delivery of her lyrics. She'll split a single phrase into two utilizing the best of the verse to get her point across. This song shows this in spades.
"Something" is another song that deals with the loss of love. Throughout the track the narrator laments not having words to say to stop their love from leaving, they just watched as they drove away. The narrator just asks why the love left, but gets no answer from the pavement.
"Rejoice" once again revisits religious iconography, utilizing phrases and stanzas found in hymnals. An introspective tune in which the narrator believes that they are ugly and full of mistakes on the inside. The narrator emphatically states that they know there is a god and that he hears either way when they reach out about their mistakes. The song concludes with Baker chanting "I rejoice" again, very familiar of a hymn.
"Vessels" a song that again prominently highlights Baker's vocals and touches on the subject of love and self-doubt. The guitar work in this track follow the vocal lines beat for beat at points, but then abandon at others. It's another hauntingly beautiful song like so many of the others.
"Go Home" features Baker on keys, something she is especially adept at. This track clearly deals with the pitfalls of addiction and the impact they can have on mental health. Particularly the notion of wanting to numb issues of anxiety and depression. The ending of the track features an almost hymnal piano feature and an audio recording of a preacher talking about Jesus Christ.
After the acclaim of Sprained Ankle, Baker would tour and open for a number of larger acts until she released her second album Turn Out the Lights in 2017 on Matador Records at the age of 21. It still displayed the haunting raw emotion of Sprained Ankle, but it also proved to be a step forward for her musically as well. Particularly from a songwriting perspective as her songs became more structured. Turn Out the Lights was also met with critical acclaim. Themes of the album primarily address how to address when internal struggles impact external relationships.
Turn Out the Lights (2017)
The album begins with an instrumental titled "Over" that features piano and a string section. This leads right into the one of the singles of the album "Appointments". We see Baker again addressing issues of self-doubt and issues within relationships.
"Turn Out the Lights" evokes comps initially to the Baker's work on Sprained Ankle. However, it quickly picks up with some fantastic guitar and heightened vocals from Baker. This song again deals with inner-struggles, presumably with anxiety and depression.
Next, "Shadowboxing" touches on the impact that mental health issues can have on relationships. Musically, it's complex with with movements throughout and a simple guitar line that holds together all the moving parts. Lyrically, this is heavy lifting by Baker.
"Sour Breath" discusses broken relationships especially when issues of substance abuse and mental health concerns come into play. It's a simple but beautiful song that is personified by it's tragic line "The harder I swim the faster I sink", which Baker repeats at the end of the song.
In "Televangelist", discusses struggles with her Christian identity. It features fantastic piano by Baker and haunting lyrics. These lyrics are delivered over keys and an organ "Am I a masochist, Screaming televangelist, Clutching my crucifix ,Of white noise and static, All my prayers are just apologies, Hold out a flare until you come for me, Do I turn into light if I burn alive". Simply exquisite lyrical work here by Baker.
Next, "Everything that Helps You Sleep" we again have Baker using religious iconography to describe issues of self-doubt and struggle. Specifically, some sort of a cure for those issues (through helping her sleep at night) through religion.
"Happy to Be Here"again focuses on finding a fix for issues of depression and anxiety. The narrator imagines herself as an electrician that could go into her brain and rewire her brain. She voices questions to an "engineer" (we presume a stand-in for God) who she asks if they made a mistake. In "Hurt Less", Baker features strings, piano, and some homemade harmonies that are fantastic. The lyrics are similarly powerful.
"I used to never wear a seatbelt'
Cause I said I didn't care
And I didn't see the point
In trying to save myself
From an accident'
Cause if somebody's gonna help me
What's this fabric gonna help
And when I'm pitched through the windshield
I hope the last thing that I felt before the pavement
Was my body float
I hope my soul goes too"
This is such a powerful lyric that expresses the complexity of self-loathing that comes with depression. The song ends on a high note of sorts with "This year I've started wearing safety belts, When I'm driving, Because when I'm with you, I don't have to think about myself, And it hurts less".
"Even" examines complications of interpersonal relationships. Particularly the highs and lows of them, when depression is a factor. It is exquisitely simple musically, as it features Baker's vocals and an acoustic guitar.
The album concludes with "Claws in Your Back" a downright haunting track about the dark side of relationships. It features Baker's vocals, piano, and a light bit of guitar and strings throughout. It's a dark song that is a fitting conclusion to a fantastic album overall.
Sprained Ankle is great, Turn Out the Lights is a masterclass in songwriting and lyrical work by Baker. This album has rightly launched her into alternative stardom. which gave her a platform to pursue interests we will discuss next.
In 2018, while organizing a group tour, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus formed the super-group trio they would call Boygenius. All three performers were already established acts within alternative music and with their powers combined, the world would have a self-titled EP from the group and a tour that matched their combined prowess.
"Bite the Hand" features Dacus as the primary vocalist with Bridgers and Baker on backing vocals. It is a song about heartbreak in love. Musically it is such a solid song with fantastic harmonies.
"Me and My Dog" primarily features Bridgers on vocals, with Baker and Dacus providing solid backing vocals to Bridgers. It also features all three on guitar when performed live.
"Souvenir" features Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus each handling lead vocals on a verse. It is a simple song that is stripped down to highlight the lyrics and the vocals. Musically, it features an acoustic guitar (played by Bridgers) and a mandolin (played by Baker).
In "Stay Down" Baker handles the lion's share of the vocals. Like a Baker song, this track features a ton of religious iconography. Including allusions to baptism (through drowning) and the notion of being labeled as a sinner.
"Salt in the Wound" features Dacus handling one verse and Bridgers and Baker sharing another with a fantastic harmony. It includes religious imagery we see in Baker's music. The song details a relationship in which one party takes, continually and the costs of that. Musically, it features some fantastic electrical guitar work throughout.
"Ketchum ID" features some of the most fantastic harmonization that you will ever hear in a song. The guitar that plays throughout is pretty understated. However, the stylings of this song are more alt-country than the previous offerings. Even the harmonies. It throws a curve ball and is perfectly placed at the end of the EP.
Overall, the EP is so strong, especially with its implementation of harmonies. Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus are able to find a place each in their respective registers that balances perfectly when the trio sings together. Musically each is so talented, it is fantastic that they play off of one another so well.
With Baker fully ingratiated into Boygenius right now, it will be interesting to see where she will go next (as well as Bridgers and Dacus). The prospect of a third album from Baker is something that fans are most assuredly waited with baited breath for. When that album will come remains to be seen. I know one thing, I cannot wait until it does come.