Julien Baker brings shattered songs to Big Room Bar


Memphis-born singer-songwriter Julien Baker performs at the Big Room Bar (photo by Andy Downing)

Julien Baker's attempts to dispatch of her most depressing songs in order to move on to something more uplifting backfired at the Big Room Bar on Monday.

"I wish I could get all the sad songs out in one chunk," said the Memphis-born singer/songwriter, "But they're all sad songs, and the chunk is my set."

While Baker's tunes tended to be littered with characters who struggled with heartbreak, chemical dependency and questions of faith, there was little give in the material, and even at the music's most shattered there remained some sense better days were yet to come. Witness "Vessel," where Baker invested herself in a bit of self-dissection - "Pull off my armor … peel back my skin," she sang, blood spilling freely on the stage - before offering that even this present darkness would one day be consumed by light.

Indeed, even when characters were beset by earthly struggles, they held tight to ingrained beliefs, sending up prayers to a god rather than questioning his or her existence. "I think there's a god/ And he hears either way when I rejoice and complain," Baker sang on "Rejoice," a languid, lovely number colored in gently reverberating electric guitar chords that echoed with cathedral stillness.

At times, the narrators failed to find the right words to sooth a situation - "I just said nothing," Baker repeated mantra-like on the icy "Something" - and in others the words spilled forth in an endless nervous tumble, as though the rush of syllables might somehow fill in all those awkward silent gaps. "Isn't this weather nice? Are you OK?'" Baker offered on "Sprained Ankle," the title cut off her 2015 solo debut.

Between songs, the musician flaunted a cornball sense of humor (she accurately described her stage talk as "dad banter") and briefly rehashed her first-ever Columbus performance at Bossy Grrl's PinUp Joint. "I got confused and was like, 'Oh no, are we playing a strip joint?'" she said, and laughed.

Fittingly, Baker followed by stripping her sound back even further, performing a trio of songs acoustic and unamplified, as though the Big Room were actually a cozy living room space. After easing through a self-flagellating "Everybody Does" ("I'm a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you'd never touched," she cooed atop suitably fragile acoustic strumming), the singer debuted a sad, slow cover of Elliott Smith's "Ballad of Big Nothing," which she said she recorded for a forthcoming tribute album.

Absent amplification, Baker's music only grew in power, and on the ironically titled "Good News," her voice lifted and rose, arching towards the rafters with such force it momentarily threatened to shake the roof from its mooring.