April 26, 2018 | Arts and Culture
songs of sadness
the communal loneliness of julien baker
I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow / I hope it bleeds all day long
I discovered Julien Baker’s 2015 album Sprained Ankle last summer in a sticky hot, sun-ridden dorm room in Durham, North Carolina—not exactly the perfect setting for an album containing the lyric “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” Despite the moment’s oxymoronic atmosphere, I felt instantly attached to Julien. She was everything I had been for years: young, female, queer, depressed (post-depressed?), a recovering addict, a human being struggling with her sheer capacity to cause pain in the universe. Julien Baker had faced hardship with her life and was doing something productive and creative with it. I, on the other hand, have yet to cross that threshold.
Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises / We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong
That day, I smiled for the first time at around 6:20 p.m. after multiple rounds of listening to the album. I remember crouching into a ball on a couch, motionless, wondering how a girl and guitar was able to conjure up so much distress. Song after song, I could hear the honesty in her acoustic guitar, the slight reverb of an electric, and the near complete lack of harmony. She was in the room with me, baring her soul in lyrics like “You’re gonna run, it’s alright, everybody does” and “I know I shouldn’t make my friends all worry when I go out at night.” I remember how, after all those hours of slow indie folk, you made me laugh over Skype. That’s what finally did it.
I hope it stays dark forever / I hope the worst isn’t over
I cannot adequately describe how it felt to see her live with you in October, one day after her new album’s release, and witness how her stickered guitar swallowed her whole body as if she was not there—as if only the music was. Sprained Ankle had so quickly become an integral part of my being and there in that concert hall, as she invited the audience to sing along to the encore, I knew that concert had entered the same emotional space in my life.
And I hope you blink before I do / I hope I never get sober
Every so often, someone points out to me that I look like her. Someone once messaged me on Instagram just to say, “dude u look so much like julien baker,” a compliment I never take lightly. The cashier at the Newbury Comics we went to this January took one look at the record I was purchasing—Sprained Ankle, whose cover features a picture of Julien herself—and told me I kinda looked like her, you know? You’ve been telling me for months that we look alike, so yeah. I do know.
And I hope when you think of me years down the line / You can’t find one good thing to say
Julien Baker once said in an interview, “My reason to stay alive is to show people that there is a reason to stay alive. How about that?” Yeah, Julien. How about that?
And I’d hope that if I found the strength to walk out / You’d stay the hell out of my way
At this point, if you know Julien Baker or you know this song, you will know that these lyrics are not from one of her songs. They are from the emotionally destructive second verse of “No Children”, an upbeat meditation by The Mountain Goats on the failing love between two unlovables. The relationship has not worked out. The only thing left is hopelessness and a twang of anger. As the singer of that band, John Darnielle, says, “when that time comes, there won’t be much to do besides sing.”
When that time came, I screamed every single lyric to this song in your car.
I am drowning / There is no sign of land / You are coming down with me / Hand in unlovable hand
It’s April and we are seeing Julien Baker together for the second time, this time in Providence. I start crying as soon as the first song begins because how else am I supposed to react to being in the same room as the musician who somehow intimately knows every destructive thought I have ever had? The tears go in waves, a fight breaks loose between a drunk guy and a security guard, one solitary man yells “YEAH!” after each song is performed—all in all, it’s a standard seated concert for a depressing artist. That is, until halfway through the set, when it happens. My friend to my left lets out an audible gasp and holds his head in his hands. It is important to note that I have a distressingly bad musical memory, so I don’t realize anything unusual immediately. That is until the third line, and it dawns on me. In the midst of her emotionally destructive concert, Julien Baker has somehow managed to reach into the musical canon and handpick the second verse from “No Children” to cover; I start shaking. My eyes are fixated on her because I don’t dare look at you; my unlovable hand is twitching. She glides seamlessly into her song “Blacktop” so we do not have time to clap right after. That’s okay, though. I don’t think I have it in me to clap; I am motionless.
And I hope you die / I hope we both die
“No Children” ends with the hope, the plea that we die. Destruction is all that is left of us, right? It hasn’t worked out so we may as well reach for the worst case scenario. In the same interview as before, Julien Baker said, “It’s like a mathematical balance, as much as we’re able to have the experience ‘bad’ or ‘ugliness’ or ‘pain,’ we can experience that amount of joy. And it’s worth sticking around.” The final song on her most recent album ends with the line, “I take it all back. I changed my mind. I wanted to stay.” How about that?