Julien Baker Album Reviews

Julien Baker grew up in Tennessee, attending Church and learning on her father’s guitar. She played in bands namd Star Killer and Forrister, before she recorded demos that didn’t fit her band. Barely 20, these demos became Sprained Ankle, a remarkably stark debut album. She continued with 2017’s Turn Out The Lights, before returning to college to complete her degree. She’s also part of the trio Boygenius with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus.

Baker hasn’t shown much stylistic range in her career to date, but she’s effective at what she does – emotive songs that deal with big issues. Her voice is powerful yet vulnerable, and it works perfectly with her emotional song-writing. She’s reportedly amazing live as well.

Julien Baker Album Reviews

Sprained Ankle | Turn Out The Lights | Little Oblivions

Sprained Ankle

2015, 8.5/10
Baker was a member of the band Forrister when she recorded a solo EP of songs that didn’t fit her band. Using her friend’s free studio time, she recorded demos, and she travelled to Richmond, Virginia, to record sparse versions of her songs. The songs were recorded quickly and released on Bandcamp as an EP – ‘Vessels’ and ‘Brittle Boned’ were added to the record later. While the arrangements are low-key, Baker’s songs often deal with big issues like addiction and faith. The stark sound works for Baker’s heartfelt songs, making them rawer and more poignant.

Sprained Ankle becomes more immersive the deeper it gets into the running list. Baker’s vocals take flight on ‘Rejoice’ – “I rejoice, and complain/I never know what to say/But I think there’s a god and he hears either way” is a great line. The keening electric guitar of ‘Vessels’ is a lovely accompaniment for Baker’s voice, while ‘Go Home’ is a cathartic closer, concluding with a piano version of modern hymn ‘In Christ Alone’. There’s great stuff at the start of the record too – the double-tracked vocals on tracks like ‘Good News’ are the only indication that these songs weren’t laid down in one sitting, while ‘Blacktop’ is typically confessional.

Sprained Ankle is a lovely debut, with Baker’s songs often immersive.

Turn Out The Lights

2017, 7.5/10
Baker’s second album was recorded in a mere six days, with Baker handling most of the instruments, but it feels slick after the rawness of Sprained Ankle. There’s still no rhythm section, but Baker adds touches of violin, clarinet, and saxophone. It lacks the lo-fi intensity of Sprained Ankle, and the songs are less memorable, but it’s still a worthy follow-up.

The moment that comes closest to recapturing the intensity of Sprained Ankle is ‘Sour Breath’, with Baker screaming “The harder I swim, the faster I sink”. ‘Sour Breath’ is nestled between other lovely songs like ‘Appointments’ and the sparse piano of ‘Televangelist’ – Baker also plays organ on the latter. The second half is less memorable than the first, but ‘Hurt Less’ is lovely.

Turn Out The Lights suffers a little from sequel-itis, but it’s a fine record on its own terms.

Little Oblivions

2021, 8/10
Before Julien Baker became an indie success with the barebone demos of 2015’s Sprained Ankle, she always played in bands. After returning to college to finish her literature and secondary teaching degree, she’s back with her third album. Little Oblivions features rock arrangements, differing from the acoustic guitar and piano textures of Baker’s first two records, but there’s no band. Baker covers most of the instruments herself, playing guitar, drums, and bass, as well as producing. Her Boygenius friends, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, contribute backing vocals on ‘Favor’.

The rock textures differentiate Little Oblivions from Baker’s previous work, but it does suffer from Baker’s biggest weakness; it’s easy for all her songs to blend into one, as she often uses similar melodic ideas. But Baker’s always engrossing regardless, with her soul-baring lyrics and compelling vocals. She’s great on rockers like ‘Ringside’, noting “Nobody deserves a second chance/But honey, I keep getting them”. There’s mellower material too – ‘Crying Wolf’ is a pretty ballad that could have easily come from an earlier Baker record.

Baker’s confessional music works well in the context of a rock band, but it would be great to hear some more diversity in melodic ideas next time.

Best Julien Baker Songs

Sour Breath
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person. It features album reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

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Graham Fyfe has been writing this website since his late teens. Now in his forties, he's been obsessively listening to albums for years. He works as a web editor and plays the piano.

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