Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them around the turn of a new year, looking back at the previous year in music.
I cried a lot in 2021. I don’t think I’m alone in that. It was a uniquely dark time for many of us, when the continued isolation imposed by the pandemic began to feel less like a moral imperative and more like a congenital defect, particularly for those like me who live alone and already prone to depressive and defeatist thinking. We had hoped the year would go better. It had other plans. In times like this, sometimes it doesn’t really help to try and boost yourself up with positive and mindful self-talk that feels false or forced. Sometimes you just want to hear from someone who gets it. For me, that someone was Julien Baker.
In advance of the release of her third solo album Little Oblivions, Baker was remarkably candid about the personal struggles and demons that inspired it, from her evangelical upbringing to a series of addictions and relapses before she was even out of her teens. If there’s a self-flagellating aspect to her music, a punishing intensity not only to the lyrics but the musical compositions supporting them, there’s also a firsthand knowledge of unhealthy coping mechanisms that can make her seem like the gurus she’s questioning, a belief in herself that’s all the more compelling for how clearly fragile it is. No track embodies that better than “Faith Healer,” the record’s first single and its best song.
Like much of Baker’s music, it starts hushed, with a simple undulating guitar picking, her voice not entering the song so much as venturing into it. “Ooh I miss it high,” she croons, as if hesitant to invade its holy space with a confession of weakness. But, as with most confessions, once Baker starts it all begins flooding out: “What I wouldn’t give if it would take away the sting a minute. Everything I love, I’d trade it in to feel it rush into my chest.” If there’s anything an addict understands in her blood, it’s the seductive power of a quick fix. Whatever the vice might be, whether it’s a drug or a person or a belief system, there’s a relief in giving into it, blinding yourself to the delusion that maybe, this time, you can control the chaos being welcomed back in. The song itself mirrors this during the bridge as strings dart with increasing fervency, building to the cathartic invitation to connect, even, and perhaps especially, when it’s bad for you: “Come put your hands on me.” When she performed this live at one of the first shows I went to post-vaccine in September, the crowd lifted theirs as if the concert hall was a revival tent. And for the upteenth time that year, I cried. And I wasn’t alone in that.