As both a Christian and an avid music listener, I am often disappointed by the lack of music that engages with topics of faith in any sort of meaningful way. There is certainly no shortage of explicitly Christian music to be listened to, but very little of it connects with me on any level. It is too often didactic rather than confessional, interested in the content more than the form. Even a songwriter as great as Bob Dylan fell victim to this problem on his three Christian albums of the late seventies and early eighties.
This is not a problem exclusive to music though, as Christian films such as God’s Not Dead also tend to focus more on message than craft, caring more about propagating a particular form of belief than making a good movie. As a counterexample of this unfortunate trend, Flannery O’Connor was as devout a Catholic as any literary figure of the twentieth century, yet to refer to her as a “Christian author” would be nonsensical and limiting due to the high quality of her work and its ability to transcend any such religious boundaries. She herself wrote that the mysteries of the Christian faith should enlarge, rather than narrow, the Christian artist’s field of vision. Unfortunately, this has not often been the case.
A recent exception to this unfortunate phenomenon is the work of a young woman from a small town in Tennessee, an English student at Middle Tennessee State University whose debut album from 2015, Sprained Ankle, sits on the boundary of the sacred and the profane – delicately noting both where they interpenetrate and part ways. What makes Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle such a phenomenal, and moving, witness to her abiding faith in God, as opposed to the treacly recordings by other religious artists, is how confessional it is. When I say confessional, I do not mean it in the same way that one describes Joni Mitchell’s Blue as confessional, although Sprained Ankle is, at points, starkly confessional in that regard as well. Rather, I mean it in the religious sense, when one speaks of their deepest beliefs arising from their personal experience of the divine, in contrast to a more didactic view of faith.
Baker is completely unconcerned with convincing the listener that what she says about God is true in any sort of objective or verifiable sense; rather, she is simply stating her own experiences and beliefs in a way that no one could reasonably dismiss, for she is not making arguments. Instead, she is speaking of her deepest pains and passions―things that one may fail to relate to, but that no one could say are not valid or meaningful without committing great violence to the depth of the soul.
Baker is the only artist who appears on this record, adding to its solitary, confessional tone. The sound is often stark, but is never lacking, as her voice, which varies from a soft whisper to a desperate howl, fills gaps that would seem otherwise incomplete. Any additional instrumentation would be unnecessary, intruding upon the intimate communion taking place between Baker and her listeners.
Baker sometimes delivers the lyrics she sings not like words to be sung, but as if they are a force to be expelled. Nowhere is this more evident than the final verse of “Go Home,” where she spits out the lyrics with a force equal to the expulsions of one suffering through an exorcism. While there is undeniable pain present in the delivery, there is also a sense of liberation that comes with the confessional revealing of such burdens. “Go Home” is a song that explicitly details the dark night the soul may face, the simultaneously choking and comforting hand that addiction places around one’s throat.
Yet in this song, the deepest darkness is just an opportunity for the light of grace to appear. While the song’s final lines, “And I know that my body is just dirty clothes/I’m tired of washing my hands/God, I wanna go home,” may not seem like a revelatory change, just reaffirming the desire to take part in the divine life is often the first step to making that dream an actuality. After two and a half verses replete with heart-rending details and suicidal fantasies, Baker ends the song, and the record, by playing the melody of “In Christ Alone,” showcasing the hope offered by Jesus, his incarnating of the divine, and its resonance for her, again restating just where it is that her hope is found.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote that her subject was “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” The same thing could be said about Baker’s songs throughout Sprained Ankle. While she sings of the devil’s presence in her arms in the form of heroin on “Blacktop,” such a malevolent force does not have the last word. Immediately after, she finds the divine presence in an IV, the saline drip functioning as a Eucharistic reminder of God’s presence and grace. If Christ can be made present in the partaking of the bread and the wine, then why not in other places as well?
“Rejoice” once again affirms the omnipresence of God in powerful ways. Even while caught in the midst of addiction, Baker’s narrator finds that the God she believes in is listening regardless of if she is “choking in smoke, or singing [God’s] praise.” It is a song Baker once described as being about having gratitude “for horrible, horrible things.” The gratefulness described here is not uncritical. One is not grateful for horrible things in themselves, but for the divine presence that undergirds all experience, that listens to us whether we rejoice or complain―and that is indeed something to rejoice over.
Even after telling the listener of her own struggles with addiction, her longing for death, and alluding to the hideous mistakes that only God knows, she is able to end the song by loudly singing, “I rejoice” four times, showcasing an abiding trust in God that may be hard to fathom or understand for those who have not experienced it themselves. Considering a song like this, it seems that for Baker the dominant attribute of the divine is its perpetual presence, its immanence in all that is. It is thus our duty to recognize this presence for the sacred thing that it is. Throughout the record, Baker confirms the insight of Alfred North Whitehead that “God is the great companion – the fellow sufferer who understands.”
While, in the first line of the album’s titular track, Baker wryly bemoans her inability to write “songs about anything other than death,” this sardonic appraisal of her own work strikes me as inaccurate. Baker’s music is uniquely life-affirming as it takes all of existence―its joys and sorrows, its celebrations and travails―as worthy of reflection. By recounting the horrors she has faced, listeners know they are not alone, there is hope beyond the pain of the present moment, there is a God that listens whether one rejoices or complains, a God that is present in both the pews at one’s local church and the stools around the neighborhood bar.
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