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  • #44: "Brittle Boned" - Julien Baker

#44: "Brittle Boned" - Julien Baker

julien's music arrived nearly a decade ago and it was the right songwriter at the right time for when I returned home to Chicago

The first time I heard the record, Sprained Ankle, by Julien Baker, I was in a very vulnerable place. I had recently moved back in with my mom after trying out graduate school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I spent over a year trying to get my life together out there, but it fell apart. I didn’t want to be a therapist after taking two classes - one was taught by a disgruntled, cynical professor who worked for the veteran’s administration. The other was a therapy role-playing class that required actors to come in to act as a patient and I was their therapist. I had a very difficult time managing my own emotional inconsistency so being graded on trying to help others was a bit overwhelming. When I found myself in the ER, there was a moment of realization: I think I was the one who needed help, physically and mentally. And I needed to move back home.

There’s so much more to the story of why things didn’t go well for me out there, but I knew I needed to return to the suburbs of Chicago again in the year 2015. Part of that process was getting back in touch with recording songs to deal with my madness, even if I was living in my mom’s townhome temporarily. She knew I needed to be alone a lot. One of the records I vividly remember discovering while I was back in therapy, swimming at the Y for exercise and working at a thrift store in Lemont part-time was the debut by Julien Baker. She inspired me to write a record called Allodynia. Her success via that record and utilizing the platform of Bandcamp was what I needed at that moment in time.

I remember pulling into the nearby Home Depot parking lot at one point when Julien’s song “Brittle Boned” came on, not to mention the track that follows it both of which brought me to tears. It’s hard to pick a favorite from a life-changing album from a songwriter that quickly became an instant favorite.

As much as I love to go cuckoo in my apartment studio with plug-ins, synth pads and effects, there is such sublime simplicity and beauty to a musician that keeps it minimal. More often than not, some of my favorite musicians will record themselves with just two tracks: one for the guitar, one for their voice. 

I might be alone in thinking this is my preferred mode for Baker. I certainly love her being in a supergroup like boygenius or taking on the full-band approach for Little Oblivions, but my heart and soul belongs to Sprained Ankle since it was the gateway. There’s no doubt that someone like Jeff Buckley would’ve gotten louder, crazier, more experimental and even did on his debut with songs like “Grace” and “Eternal Life,” but there’s something about his performances at Sin-E. It’s just his voice and a strummed electric. This is what I prefer to be my setup when I play live, and I have him to thank for embracing that. Baker started out doing the same thing only with a lot of loop pedals, reverb and effects at her feet.

When I met Julien Baker at the 2018 Pitchfork Festival after watching the Big Thief set (it was a little distracting knowing I was standing right behind her and her partner), I told Julien she was my favorite songwriter since Jeff Buckley. (Yes, in hindsight, I had conveniently blocked out Jeff Tweedy). “That’s… wonderful and wild to hear, thank you,” she replied. We hugged and I walked away. Much like the time I had met Liz Phair, it was hard not to cry tears of joy after that moment. Cloud nine? More like cloud twenty-five.

“When I was in New York, I was talking about ‘Brittle Boned’ before playing it. I explained that it’s about having to kill parts of yourself you don’t like so you can be a better person on the whole. And there was a guy after the show who said: ‘I really needed to hear someone say that because I’ve been doing that. I’ve been killing parts of myself that I don’t like, and it sucks to have to leave things behind and go through change, and it’s hard.’ I answered like, ‘Yeah it’s really hard, and you’re a total stranger, but I’m so glad you’re here.’ That’s what makes it worth it for me” - Julien Baker

Genius.com analysis of “Brittle Boned” is succinct, apt, worth citing particularly since Julien’s lyrics here are what take hold of me the most. As I’ll probably reiterate time and time again, my near-death experience along with hospital settings/imagery automatically connect to me on a deep, personal level. “This song uses the metaphor of a hospital deathbed to allude to the “killing” of parts of a personality or past that is no longer wanted. It refers to change like euthanasia, negating the idea that change is good and instead is a death sentence for the past.”

The idea of destruction leading to something new, created entirely out of a need for personal revision is a desire I think all of us can identify with to some extent. It could be a need to change careers, relationships, health, lifestyle or the people we surround ourselves with. In this case, it’s the internal. An examination of “self” on a deep existential level that involves being attended to by medical professionals. Killing yourself to be reborn, in order to achieve self-actualization or at least take personal control in hopes of bettering yourself for the future. Sometimes we need a pill and someone to talk to - sometimes we need a lot more. On top of all this, the imagery presented here is easy to conjure up and envision: “The low, electric glow, static snows in the lobby, Dull TV, magazines, waiting rooms can't hide me from the sting, paper sheets, bloodwork, the IV.” 

A film that comes to mind when thinking about this song is John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, Seconds, in which our lead character literally wants to become someone else, killing off his own life to experience something entirely new and different. Wouldn’t it be great to completely eradicate the parts of ourselves we wish weren’t there? But they exist for a reason - we have to learn to adapt to our imperfections. We may never fully accept them, they are unwanted after all, yet we have to take the bad with the good.

Julien’s delivery is mostly subtle here much like the strummed clean guitar here that often sounds a bit like Explosions in the Sky with a chord structure that’s akin to another favorite song of mine, “Sea of Teeth” by Sparklehorse (especially the fourth chord played in the intro). If you Google Image search, you’ll likely see how much she loves to belt, mouth wide open. That’s most often when Jeff Buckley comes to mind. She has quite the vocal range - belting, screaming, wailing, sustaining notes longer than expected.

She does have a love of punk rock and metal to be certain, but her solo work is often subtle with slowly building tension courtesy of trembling, reverb-heavy guitars. It’s not until Little Oblivions does her roots from being in an indie rock band emerge. Here in “Brittle Boned,” she’s clearly portraying someone damaged and frail. Her vocals here reflect a self-contained trepidation, rather than someone confidently commanding a live stage like a church pulpit. The song’s power slowly warms in, sneaks up on you. 

Baker began sharing her internal conflicts with religion, queerness, and self-destruction all with one powerful debut and this song fits right in with those themes, questions and uncertainties. Baker sings candidly: “and a line of rifles aimed at my sick mind / ‘cause I’m so good at hurting myself.” Her self-awareness is a burden, and true frailty emerges when vocal harmonies and a percussive floor tom calmly reveal themselves later on.

“There is a Gabriel Garcia Marqeuz quote I love that is human beings aren’t born the person they are when they leave their mother's womb but we are obliged to rebirth ourselves day after day, after day. Well, ‘Brittle Boned’ is kind of focused more on the internal version of yourself; it’s your inner psychological flaws. I just don’t think there is anything to be necessarily cured; we are the people that we are with our biological and psychological faults. I could spend forever not trying to be a type-A anxious person with a nervous disposition and it would never happen. 

But I can choose how self-aware I am, and I can choose how to cope with that. I can choose to be positive or negative, I can choose to lose parts of myself that I don’t like, like my negativity or fear and try to kill those. It doesn’t mean that I am never going to have another panic attack, I’ll probably have panic attacks my whole life, but I can choose to laugh about it, and I can choose to talk to other people who are depressed or anxious and use it for good. In that way, we can shape even our negative attributes into positive tools. Sorry, sometimes I talk like that, and it seems a little ‘motivational speaker at a conference’, I don’t want to come off that way!” - Julien Baker

Part of me can’t wait for whatever Julien Baker does next as a solo artist and the other part of me is quite aware that the recent Grammy wins for boygenius might indicate she’s moving on to even more fame and acclaim which is certainly warranted. Another song of hers that surprised me came later, one that I covered in an attempt to make it a little sneakier and more mysterious. Sounded a bit like a thief trying to break in with more focus on low-end bass than high-end acoustic strums. “Even” was another standout song from her catalog that I immediately connected to but honestly, the majority of her songs have really struck chords in ways that few contemporary songwriters have achieved. 

There are so many songs I could’ve written about by Julien. “Something” is another that means a lot. “Hurt Less” is another masterpiece. She’s co-written a number of great tracks with her buddies in boygenius too. But this is the one that started it all so why not begin at the beginning. She’ll come up again. And once again, like Jeff Buckley and Jeff Tweedy, I cannot recommend enough the experience of seeing her perform live which cemented my connection to her words even more. A fearless performer that was born to be a songwriter.

This song trails off a little with irresolution, a little like the process of undoing in hopes of change and progress. “Brittle Boned'' along with the track that follows on Sprained Ankle are both pitch-perfect gut punches in ways that make me realize how much music remains the best therapy possible, for the artist and the listener. I feel incredibly lucky to have told her in-person how much her music has helped me, both live and on record. There’s no doubt that I’m not alone in remaining grateful for her unrestrained, undeniable talent.


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