“You got me listening to songs about drinking bleach…” Thanks to Robyn for letting me use a picture of her and Julien from a concert I missed :'(.
I spent all of September listening to this album and it deserves a more writing than what I gave it. I spent some time reflecting on the music and understanding the feelings that they evoked. As I did so, I started listening to live recordings (see the bottom of this post) and reading some of the comments. Many of them praised her for writing such raw, honest, vulnerable music.
So, like a good researcher, I wonder – what about her music leaves us with a familiar/bittersweet taste in our mouth? Why do all of her listeners come away feeling raw and spiritual, and what does that have to do with the album’s well documented backstory of mending her Christian faith, sexual orientation, and other things in her past that she hints at in the album? Why do none of the commenters make the connection between the music’s raw vulnerability and her faith?
This is all a bit more relevant, maybe, in the context of Chance the Rapper’s Grammy’s performance of “How Great,” (sorry, can’t find the live performance anywhere). There was a lot of talk about his album as being fully hip-hop, but defiantly spiritual (there’s a bit in here). Doing it live at the Grammys turned the whole night into one big worship set, bringing up a huge discussion about music as being spiritual and damn good.
My argument: The album is so familiar and vulnerable because it recounts our own experience as going through a spiritual journey. Read as a 40 something minute conversation with God, Sprained Ankle captures us with a fraught tension. Julien-in-the-songs fluctuates between belief and disbelief, calling out for God’s promises but reminding herself of her own undeserving. The constant shifting looks exactly how we imagine. It’s bitter, painful, vulnerable, filled with weakness, and unsatisfying. Despite that, God shows up, and Julien-in-the-songs grows.
So, Sprained Ankle is about Julien-in-the-songs deepening her intimacy with God. From a a Christian world view, this is an intimacy all people are looking for and need – so of course hearing the album sounds familiar and vulnerable. Especially because she is a Christian, the gospel message is going to show up in her work and is going to compel people – even if just to consider how the music points to a deeper spiritual reality, and even if it’s not intentional.
Song by song, Julien-in-the-songs’ spiritual reality expands. It happens in 3 acts, with 3 songs each. First, her sense of reality crumbles, then, she’s really takes a look at herself, and finally, she’s calling for God’s help. All throughout, she’s in constant conversation with God, but as the album proceeds, her doubt decreases and her desperation increases – the wonder in Blacktop, when she asks, “Come visit me,” becomes a needing call, “God, I wanna go home,” in Go Home.
The lesson for me, maybe, is how much those video comments are missing about what makes this album good, and about why they react with such praise. It seems like they’re entering into a spiritual praise alongside Julien Baker without even realizing it. It’s part of my job, maybe, to point them in the right direction.
Blacktop‘s entire second half is a reflection on God’s presence, or rather, the lack of it. Despite Julien’s efforts – “I wrote you love letters / And sung them in my house…” she worries, “if no one sings along in praise / are you still proud when I open my mouth?” As a prayer, it places weight on God to respond to her call to “come visit me.” There’s a distance between her physical reality and her spiritual reality; it takes the form of song structure. The second verse (spiritual reality) pierces the physical reality (a car accident that leaves Julien in an ambulance), and Julien only returns to the present after her theological rumination. It’s an abrupt and surprising spatial jump: from her Southern home to the blacktop ambulance.
Sprained Ankle, in my head, takes place during the ambulance ride to the hospital. Stable and aware, the metaphor weaves her physical and spiritual situation. On the literal end, she’s actually broken: coming off “the devil in my arms” (from Blacktop), she feels like “a sprinter learning to wait” for the drugs to come out of her system, for the calm shock of being in a car crash to end, for the consequences to wash over her. But, internally, she reflects on the distance between her and God – from love letters in the past, to embarrassing, awkward silence. Somewhere, though, she recognizes the impermanence of her situation – it’s a sprained ankle keeping her from the marathon of a life of faith, but she still has legs.
Brittle Boned is probably my favorite song on the album. It’s the conclusion to the tension of the first two songs: a few moments awake in the hospital, being haunted by ghosts of her thoughts (the harmony in the album recording), Julien comes to a conclusion: “I’m so good at hurting myself.” It’s both a defeated acknowledgement and a cry for help; a twisted source of pride at how good she is at it, and resignation to being alive and stuck with that truth.
Everybody Does brought me to tears the first time I listened to it – it’s waking up at home, realizing you’re alive and incomplete. The first verse is a beautiful, poetic dedication of faith. The imagery is raw and acknowledges the difficulty of reconciliation between a perfect God and an imperfect person; it’s filled with pain and reassurance. Not that the rest of the song isn’t as powerful. He proclamation that, “I know myself better than anybody does,” is a paradox: perfect knowledge over yourself both disclaims God’s omniscience and credits your own. The way she sings it, though, filled with bitterness and irony, all but screams that it’s all a facade. Of course God wouldn’t run from us – he’s not really “everybody” is he?
Good News is a slow, low march forward. For once, Julien is heading somewhere – toward an acceptance of who she is. This is the precursors of a powerful, public coming to faith moment (that happens in Rejoice). Julien names a spiritual barrier for herself, but doesn’t make us, the audience, privy. Rather, she talks around it and points at the effect of this barrier: she is pushing towards a deeper relationship with God (though “it’s not easy” and she worries her friends, and she can’t fall asleep), but she just can’t help but feel like she “ruins everything I think could be good news.” The cornerstone piece missing, of course, is that “gospel” in the literal means “good news” (and of course Julien can’t ruin a divine revelation).
Something is an awakening moment; on top of ruins of the past, talking out loud against a thunder building up. You can feel it in the music – the guitar builds into a lively companion to Julien’s voice as she proclaims and breaks through. No longer able to contain the spiritual reflections, Julien shouts in the wind, “I won’t think of anyone else.” It’s a bold thing to proclaim: that in spite of the reality she perceives, and the ghosts telling her that God “left hours ago,” that she “meant nothing” to him, she knows it’s not true. That despite feeling at fault for not saying something, she defies that perception of reality in favor of knowing that God promises to remain.
If Something is the beginnings of proclamation, Rejoice is pure defiance: riding the waves of the ocean, fully empowered. You can hear it in her voice; by the end of the song, Julien is screaming “I rejoice, I rejoice.” In Good News, she beings to see who she is, and in Something she begins to fight against it. But here, the doubt has lifted, and the ghosts are starting to go away – ghosts that the song hints and and names but doesn’t explain (presumably because Blacktop was based on a real experience that’s too personal to name, even in such vulnerable music).
Vessels is the internal side Rejoice. Whereas the external is waves crashing and thunder flashing, Vessels is a calm, floating inside a sepulcher in the heart of the mountains, a hollow room where she floats and meets God. Here, she makes known the cost of faith: being without armor, “knees bruised and naked,” fully seen, fully known. Before God, she is wholly transparent – and as embarrassing as it is for the object of her love to see her conclusions in Everybody Does and Good News, it’s overwhelming, and holy, and pure.
Go Home, finally, is a return to reality. In spite of her new spiritual growth, the reality around her hasn’t completely chained. It’s exhausting and difficult, and her relationship with God isn’t perfect. She hits her lows and confesses them: “I quit talking again“, though aware that in spite of that, God is still listening, and she’s not alone. So, she takes the smallest of victories – she confesses how tired, weary, and lonely she is, and asks with desperation God to “please, come take me home.”
It’s a terrifying look at what a life of following God looks like, because it doesn’t actually get easier. It almost feels like she’s still in the same place: devil in her arms, lonely and at the bottom. But her spiritual reality is different: she’s one step closer to the intimacy she seeks, that was missing at the start of the album. I’m amazed ad just how damn good her music is at capturing something I’ve experienced myself.
 Picture credit to Robyn L., who went to Julien Baker’s Champaign concert after I asked her to. She’s great. I’m so jealous.
 That is, everyone is on some sort of spiritual journey. Even if you don’t believe in God, you go through the process of ruling out the spiritual in favor of some other way to frame your experiences. As a Christian, we’re on a journey to learn to follow Jesus.
Live Performances on YT, as of 2/23/17 (no concerts)