This first impression was originally posted as a live blog for supporters in our forums on October 20th, 2017. First impressions are meant to be quick, fun, initial impressions on an album or release as I listen to it for the first time. It’s a running commentary written while listening to an album — not a review. More like a diary of thoughts. This post has been lightly edited for structure and flow.
It’s been too long since I’ve done one of these.
It’s been a while since there’s been a really hyped album coming out that felt right for something like this. But, this Julien Baker album seems just about perfect as we move into fall. Her last album, Sprained Ankle, is one of my favorite fall albums and it’s only a matter of time until this one cements itself in my cold weather rotation as well. In many ways it takes what the first album did and expands upon it in every way. It reminds me a little bit of how Manchester Orchestra took ILAVLAC and enhanced a variety of different aspects of that sound, and their songwriting, to take it up another level for METN. That’s the feeling I get from this album. It takes Julien’s songwriting to a new level, maintains the “it” factor that solidifies her as one of the most exciting and talented voices in music right now, and puts her in rarified air. It’s the kind of album I could see us talking about for years.
In a year that’s been filled with so many new albums, it’s hard to pick out the ones that I think will live a life longer than just this year. The ones that we will return to, talk about, and obsess over for years to come. What are the next classics? The next great albums? The ones all of us remember as the year it came out? I’ve heard a few this year that I think are in contention, albums that have knocked me on my ass, brought a huge smile to my face, and left me speechless … and then “Claws in Your Back” finished and I looked down at the hair standing straight up on my arm. Jesus. That’s new.
This album finds a way to separate itself from the pack. It’s special. It’s haunting. It’s soul-crushingly sad. And it’s worth every second of your undivided attention. It’s an album that you find yourself scrolling past on your phone, not sure if you’re in that kind of mood tonight. Then it gets a little later, the drinks get a little stiffer, and with rain kissing the windows you slide your headphones on and hit play. It’s an “it’s going to be one of those kinda nights” album. A “think about your life, question your existence, wake up with a headache” album. A “replay the failed relationships, replay the mistakes, stress about all the timelines that never will be” kind of album. And I fucking love it.
As always, I reserve the right to change my mind in the future, this isn’t really a review as much as it is just me listening to the album, writing some thoughts down, and speaking off the cuff about what I like, don’t like, and the overall impression the album gives me.
6:31pmThe album begins with a door opening and someone walking up to a piano. Some shuffling. And then the piano begins … we get a nice little intro here, a little over a minute and a half long, and it sets the mood for the album. It’s thought out and deliberate.
6:32pmI love piano and violin together, I just do. Two of my favorite instruments … simple and yet haunting. They swirl here (and sound really good in headphones).
Really good mood setting with the instrumental opening … that perfectly fades into …
6:33pmI’m assuming a lot of people have heard this one already. I think it’s a great “track 1” (technically track 2) on the album, setting the mood for the entire thing and giving us a place to set expectations. Tone, production, style. It’s all here in the first track (melding with the intro).
6:35pmWhat I love about Julien’s songwriting is that it comes across as an effortless emotion. Clearly she’s spent a lot of time on the lyrics and storytelling aspect of her songs, and they sometimes feel like she wrote them and they were never meant to be heard by anyone else. And it’s so effortlessly introspective, haunting, and devastating.
I think if I ruin this
That I know I can live with it
Nothing turns out like I pictured it
Maybe the emptiness is just a lesson in canvases
I love that line.
6:38pmHer voice is everything I want in a singer. It’s strong and emotive. It pulls you in and is used to drive and direct the songs.
The bridge is great.
Turn Out the Lights
6:39pmAnother one people have probably heard.
6:40pmI relate to her lyrics more than I want to really admit. I feel some of these lines in my god damn bones and it scares me. Heh.
6:41pmI loved this when I first heard it, but I may put it lower in my ranking on the album after falling so in love with other songs.
Love when the electric guitar comes in … and she starts belting.
6:42pmA true jaw on the floor kind of song.
6:44pmSoft, slow intro … like most of the songs the vocals and lyrics are what pull you in.
I know that you don’t understand
‘Cause you don’t believe what you don’t see
When you watch me throwing punches at the devil
It just looks like I’m fighting with me
The way she sings the “it” is so fucking good.
6:47pmThe way she tackles relationships, with herself, with others, with God, reminds me of Andy Hull in the songwriting department. This intense, stripped raw, feeling. Incredible.
I like the violin touches here. They’re subtle and don’t overpower the song. Simple little melody. And I think throughout the album these flourishes (like the wind instruments later on) keep the album from feeling too “same-y.”
When you told me you love me
Tell me you loved me
I wanted so bad to believe it
So tell me you love me
Tell me you loved me
I want it so bad
I wanted so bad to believe you
6:48pmI can’t even handle this section of the song.
6:49pmJesus. That ending.
6:52pm”I know you do better when you’re by yourself …”
This song showcases the storytelling side of Julien in a way I don’t think we’ve quite seen before.
“You’re everything I want and I’m all you dread..”
6:53pmI mean, fuck. Sometimes it’s hard to not just get lost in the song.
6:54pmThe repeated refrain of “the harder I swim, the faster I sink” and how it builds reminds me so much of learning from Brand New’s TDAG. It’s taking something simple, soft, and building, building, building to an explosive end.
6:55pmThis was an early favorite for me. I get a lounge singer vibe in this controlled burn of a song.
6:56pm”Because I’m an amputee with a phantom touch, leaning on an invisible crutch.”
This song is almost completely piano based.
6:58pmLove the little upper register reach.
(I wish I had the full lyrics here to read this one.)
7:00pmNice little choir/chorus of Julien harmonies.
Everything That Helps You Sleep
7:03pmStarting a song with something like, “What is it like to be empty?,” is the kinda thing only a few artists can pull of with sincerity. It takes committing to the feeling, the song, the emotion … and meaning it. You do it wrong and the integrity of everything that follows is in question. You have to have Elliot Smith like tact as you walk a lyric like that through someone’s ears. Julien does it perfectly.
7:05pmThis album uses the piano a lot, and I’m here for it.
“And everything that’s supposed to help me sleep at night, don’t help me sleep at night …. anymore.”
The way she hits “anymore” is with such pain.
7:06pmOne of the songs that that uses male backup vocals. I wasn’t initially sold on them, but I’ve come around on their use. There’s this moment here where the violin comes in and she again switches up the melody just a tad and it reminds me so much of something Jesse Lacey would do to get a line to fit just right.
Happy to Be Here
7:09pmGuitars are back.
If I could do what I want
I’d become an electrician
I’d climb inside my ears
And I’d rearrange the wires in my brain
Different me would be inhabiting this body
I’d have two cars, a garage, a job
And I would go to church on Sunday
So many quotable parts here in this song.
Because I miss it the way that I miss nicotine
If it makes me feel better, how bad could it be?
Well I heard there’s a fix for everything
Then why, then why, then why
Then why not me?
7:13pmThere’s no verse this year that has broken me quite like this one. When her vocals reach their peak on the final “then why not me?” it feels like being punched in the face.
No one is laughing from an audience of folding plastic chairs
And I’m not fooled when you tell me that you’re glad I came
Am I just honest to admit or just a hypocrite?
I know I should be being optimistic but I’m doubtful I can change
7:16pm… I mean come on …
Her vocals man … the little quiver in the strength.
7:18pmAnother favorite for me. Piano kicks us off.
Violin comes in …
I shouldn’t have let you leave
I should’ve called you twice
But I didn’t
It’s always something else
And I know it’s a bad time
But there’s no one left for me to call
And I was wondering if you would be my ride
And damn it, we are gonna figure something out
If it takes me all night to make it hurt less
7:21pmWrecks me … it wrecks me every time. (Here we get another use of backing vocals that I think … think probably shoulda been cut. I get why they’re there to tell the dual story here and add some strength to the lines where they’re used, but I dunno.)
7:24pmThe final three song run is just impeccable.
7:26pmWhen I said this was a “replay the failed relationships, replay the mistakes, stress about all the timelines that never will be” kind of album I was thinking of this song.
I’ve spent a few nights listening to it, then hitting repeat, then listening to it, then hitting repeat, then listening to it … and then just sitting there with my head in my hands.
“It’s no good if the pain doesn’t make you feel like you earned it, and I probably deserved it.”
“It’s not that I think I’m good, I know that I’m evil, I guess I’m trying to even it out.”
7:29pmQuintessential Julien Baker song.
Claws in Your Back
7:30pmFrontrunner for my favorite song of the year.
Open with some nice piano.
7:32pmI love the control and restraint she uses here. She lets go, pulls back, hints at just letting it explode, pulls back …
7:36pmThe last two minutes of this song are the most intense moment of an album I’ve heard this year.
7:37pm”Living with demons, I’ve mistaken for saints…”
Might be my favorite line I’ve heard all year.
7:38pm”… if you keep it between us I think they’re the same.”
Might be the moment I lose it every time.
7:38pmThe last 20 seconds are fucking brutal. Jesus christ. Her vocals when she belts the last lines are … just … fuck me.. Fuuuuuuuckckckckckckckcck.
7:46pmThe final line is her practically screaming “I wanted to stay…” and it fucking kills me. It just flat out kills me. It’s as emotional a moment, in any medium, I’ve experienced in quite a while. It’s special.
The album’s special.
If I had “complaints,” it’s just that this is the kind of album you don’t really put on for a fun time. Hah, it’s just god damn sad. It doesn’t have “background” ability. It’s the kind of album you want to sit through, study, listen to, and really experience. That ends up hurting the replay-ability a little bit. But, it doesn’t hurt the quality of the album. I think Noah Gunderson’s Carry the Ghost was the last time I heard an album like this that really made me feel this way … that we’re seeing a songwriter use their abilities at such a high level to pluck emotions out of thin air with a guitar, piano, and voice. It’s a sight to behold.
I don’t know what else to say. It’s really the kind of thing where I feel speechless in the best kind of way.
Just need a moment to collect all my thoughts and try and put into words the way music can destroy you and fill you with hope at the same time.
I think it surpasses Sprained Ankle in the same way when we see an artist become well loved, and then they go, “you’ve seen nothing yet” and take it up a new level. This is the next level. It takes and expands upon what she built in the best way and meets and exceeds my lofty expectations.
As I said before, this is rarified air. This is the makings of the next classic artist we obsess over. The makings of an album we put up with those we consider untouchable. It feels like the first artist that grew up listening to stuff like Andy Hull, Jesse Lacey, and all the albums we fell in love with and said, “I can do that too.” And then went out and did it. And then made it their own. And then pushed it further.
A rare talent. A brilliant spark in the songwriting world. An incredible album.