In what was a homecoming show of sorts, 20-year-old singer-songwriter Julien Baker made Nashville’s Exit/In her sanctuary Wednesday night.
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Standing center stage with a new Fender Telecaster, Baker recounted her darkest moments as the crowd sang along to her songs like well-rehearsed hymns, which later shifted to something of a choir on the set closer, “Something.”
These religious metaphors are particularly fitting for Baker, who largely taps into faith on her debut album, Sprained Ankle, with songs that both question and embrace her spirituality when faced with substance abuse, heartbreak and hospital rooms. While her music occasionally hides a silver lining, she opened the show with two of her more despairing tracks, “Sprained Ankle” and “Blacktop.” On the guilt-ridden “Blacktop,” she recalls a car accident and questions whether God was with her by drawing comparisons between church pews and bar stools and describes her IV as “a saline communion.”
There’s no doubt the Memphis-native’s vocals were at the forefront of Wednesday’s performance, with minimal instrumentation and an occasional loop of ambient noise as her only accompaniment. At one point, Baker, who attends Middle Tennessee State University, a college about 30 miles from the venue, took the opportunity to share a new song with a crowd full of many familiar faces before dipping back into Sprained Ankle.
After a few original songs, she launched into “Keep On The Sunny Side,” a track made popular by the Carter Family in the ’20s, before strumming the opening chords of “Brittle Boned.” She followed that up with “Rejoice,” a song garnished with reverberating electric guitar and powerful vocals that echoed throughout venue and ended with a noticeable stillness.
Although her music is admittedly heavy, Baker often broke the dismal mood with her warm and friendly stage banter. She shared stories of seeing Motion City Soundtrack at the 40-year-old venue after a tough break-up, eliciting shallow laughter from an anecdote about a failed crowd surfing experience.
“You’re supposed to laugh at that,” she told the crowd along with a joke about her “sad songs.” Baker’s right — the crop of songs on Sprained Ankle were derived from a dark place, but even she finds a way to make light of the subject matter.
One of the evening’s most intimate moments came on the set closer, “Something,” in which Baker explicitly told the reality of losing something, or someone, important. The song reached its peak on the bridge when Baker belted out, “I thought I meant something,” one of the most sobering lyrics of the night. Baker is so articulate about her feelings that even she has this beautiful, twisted way of bringing clarity to otherwise troubling experiences. To listen to her songs on the album is one thing, but hearing them live was something else entirely.