“Prepare for the saddest, most fucking amazing night of your life,” said singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers as she left the Bowery Ballroom stage last night after her opening set. The sold-out crowd in attendance cheered in acknowledgement of what was to come. New Yorkers have had plenty of opportunity to get used to what Julien Baker offers, since this was her third show in the city this year. When she stepped up to the mic to croon her first line of the night on Wednesday — “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death” — the applause quickly cut out, leaving a reverential silence that the audience maintained during each following song.
This time last year, Baker was a pretty normal college student studying English at Middle Tennessee State University, outside Nashville. Then, her debut album, Sprained Ankle, came out in October, and suddenly she was the center of the music press’s attention, becoming more musician than student almost overnight. Baker gives us an opportunity to indulge in grief for a little while, to grapple with the unfortunate things we go through. When her voice cracks as she sings on “Go Home” that she has “kissed enough bathroom sinks to make up for the lovers who never loved me,” a part of us cracks, too, and then starts to heal, if only a little bit.
Last night was Baker’s last stop on an East Coast tour, and she played everything on Sprained Ankle, which at the moment comprises her entire catalog. She added in “Funeral Pyre,” a new song that was characteristically cathartic, which she’s said in interviews was originally (and self-effacingly) titled “Sad Song 11.” For the encore, she brought out Sharon Van Etten (another smart-sad artist who has openly praised her, and to whom Baker has often been compared) to sing Baker’s “Good News,” a reflection on expectations and effort that result in disappointments. Van Etten’s high harmonies were the perfect frame for Baker’s alto, making an already sad song almost unbearably so (and unbearably beautiful, too).
At one point last night, Baker covered Elliott Smith’s “Ballad of Big Nothing,” which she’s recorded for a multi-artist Smith tribute album that will arrive this October. Smith, like Van Etten, is an easy comparison to Baker, since both write from a place of vulnerability, but Smith’s cynicism — “You can do what you want to whenever you want to, though it doesn’t mean a thing” — is not something Baker shares. Yes, her songs are full of pain, forcing listeners to reckon with the tensions of her addiction to drugs and alcohol, growing up gay in the the South, and growing up in general; but her music is not hopeless. The heroine emerges at the end, scared and scarred, but redeemed, here to stand imperfectly before us and reveal all she has learned.