Home / Music / Concert Reviews / Ben Gibbard w/ Julien Baker @ The Pabst Theater

Ben Gibbard w/ Julien Baker @ The Pabst Theater

Jan. 18, 2017

Jan. 19, 2017
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Photos courtesy Kellen Nordstrom
Contrary to those precious Abilify commercials, the physical symptoms of depression don’t feel anything like a harmless cartoon blob that shadows you throughout your daily routine. It’s more like an invisible tick that siphons your energy and replaces it with uncanny, throbbing pain, a body-wide ache you can’t muster the strength to trace. When songwriters write about depression, they understandably tend to focus on the emotional toll, feelings that art has romanticized since the days of Shakespeare. They’re less likely, though, to delve into the ugly, physical details. Heartbreak is glamorous. Disability is not.

No songwriter in recent memory has better captured that sense of debilitation than Julien Baker, the Memphis powerhouse who released her debut album Sprained Ankle in 2015 at age 20. The record is a chronicle of frailty—it opens with an invitation to visit her in the back of an ambulance, then proceeds on a tour of hospital rooms and bathroom floors. Its most powerful moments aren’t the ones where she’s bottoming out, though. They’re the ones where she simply does her best to navigate the world and lead an ordinary life despite the unshakable pain. Depression is, in her words, a splinter so deep under the nail you can never remove it or, in the title track’s central metaphor, a marathon runner’s sprained ankle, a handicap that poses an obstacle even on your best days.

I discovered Baker’s record during the worst period of my life, a period of horror and uncertainty that I still haven't found the right words to describe to anybody else. And I took to the album because somehow it made me feel worse. In hindsight that seems counter-intuitive, but at the time I was so numbed by loss that any fluctuation in my mood, even a downward one, felt like a miracle. I didn’t even relate to the specifics of her songs: the hospital trips, the battle with addiction, the spiritual crisis that underlines the whole thing. The physical sensation that it conjured, though? Unmistakable.  

Sometimes it was too much. Once I ripped off my headphones because some sentiment, or more likely some break in her voice, hit too close to home. Other times I had to stop the record after a few songs and take a walk (or more often just sit in a silent room) to clear my head. Eventually the album became a kind of rehab tool for me. I’d listen to it as much as I could, steeling myself for the hard parts to see if I could get through them. On good days I could. The worst part came during the album’s final stretch, “Rejoice,” which culminates in an outpouring of raw pain that just seems to go on and on forever. I’d take a deep breath before that final verse came on and just hope for the best.
I don’t envy Baker for having to play those songs night after night on the road, even if she’s starting to make a real name for herself with them. On the heels of her recent signing to Matador Records, Baker returned to Milwaukee for a show at the Pabst Theater opening for one of her early inspirations, Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard—who seemed a bit out of his element playing without a rock band, though he also seemed to relish playing a gig where he wasn’t expected to perform “The New Year” or “Transatlanticism” for the thousand-somethingth time. His one move was to start each song slow than gradually bleed its tempo from there, but what he lacked in gusto he made up for with charm. He regaled the crowd with stories about moving Los Angeles and old friends and Jonathan Richman, and memories of his first Milwaukee show at the Cactus Club, and touring through here and crashing with bands like Braid and Camden (man, Camen was so good), and how he nearly moved here once. Fans love that stuff, and they also loved hearing old favorites that have gradually been phased out of Death Cab’s live set, like The Photo Album’s “Blacking Out The Friction” or Something About Airplanes’ “Line of Best Fit.”

Gibbard’s ultra-slow songs about sleepness nights couldn’t help but feel a little hollow coming after Baker’s decidedly more intense take on the same general territory, though. And unlike Gibbard’s songs, Baker’s were written to be performed alone. A year on the road touring behind Sprained Ankle has made her set about as tight as it could possibly be. She filled the songs with small flourishes and purposeful pauses—hardly huge departures from their studio versions, but when your music is this barren, any minor deviation counts for a lot.

If there was anybody in the theater hit harder by her set than me, I’d love to buy them a drink. They’re some of my favorite songs of the last decade, yet hearing them again makes me feel the way a hospital patient might about seeing an old IV bag or cast. They've done me nothing but good but they can’t escape their association with shittier times.

Toward the end of her set she played “Rejoice,” and though I got through it, I couldn't have been more relieved when it was over.

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