The thing that made Julien Baker's 2015 album Sprained Ankle feel so special — besides her towering talent as a composer and musician, of course — is that no one had heard of Julien Baker.
More precisely: Not many people had heard of her. Some folks in her hometown of Memphis, and fans of her rock band Forrister — probably. A handful at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, where she went to college. A lucky few who had stumbled upon her Bandcamp profile, where she "self-released" (OK, uploaded) some of Sprained Ankle's songs in 2014.
But for the rest of the world, Sprained Ankle (officially released by 6131 Records in October of 2015) came from out of nowhere, carrying with it nine gorgeously sparse songs that teemed with emotions so raw, they felt like they were scraped off the walls of your heart, not hers.
Out of nowhere isn't quite right, but it's close. Baker — then a teenage student at MTSU — wrote those songs in unused practice rooms at the school's music facility, then recorded them quickly with a friend, adding minimal bits of piano, strings, backing vocals, feedback and other noise. The result: A hauntingly honest exploration of life, love, heartbreak, addiction, self-loathing, self-destruction, spirituality and death.
"I'm a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you'd never touched," Baker sang in "Everybody Does," one of the album's relatively upbeat tunes. "But you're gonna run when you find out who I am."
Add it all up and you can see why the people who connected with Sprained Ankle did so deeply: These are universal feelings, presented in an uncomfortably intimate way via vivid lyrics and memorable melodies. And for those who hadn't heard of Baker before, it all came soaked in the intoxicating sense of discovery. These songs were for them, and no one else.
Now Baker is back to try to make those same connections without surprise on her side. In late October, she released her second solo album, Turn Out the Lights, through iconic indie label Matador Records. The upgrades don't end there. The new album was recorded at the world-famous Ardent Studios in Memphis, and sonically speaking, it features better production and more lavish arrangements than the debut. There are more vocal harmonies, more string-section swells and more dramatic electric guitars. Most notably, Baker seems to have written more on the piano this time around.
Which is not to say she went overboard with her newly available resources on Turn Out the Lights. Baker still knows how to let songs ebb and flow, even if the highs are higher and the lows are a little less lo-fi. She is still a master of harrowing confessionals, heart-pumping crescendos and the journey in between. Whatever she has experienced since Sprained Ankle was a left-field hit, it hasn't shaved off the vital peaks and valleys of her songs.
And besides, for human beings, instruments and arrangements and volume and production value are all just icing on the cake of connection. At our base level, we are drawn to characters and stories and emotion. On that front, Turn Out the Lights delivers the goods.
Therein lies the true beauty of Julien Baker's music. It's not the voice or the guitar or the record label or the studio, though those are all important parts of the puzzle. It's that she's an incredible and imperfect human being, just like you and me, and she has a gift for singing about human-being things in a way that resonates in other humans' hearts.
As long as she's doing that, it doesn't really matter whether you've been a fan for years or you're just getting to know Julien Baker. Every time you hear her, it feels like the first time. ♦
Julien Baker, with Half Waif and Chris Farren • Thurs, Dec. 7, at 8 pm • SOLD OUT • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague Ave. • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174