A Pretty OK Song: "Appointments" - Julien Baker
Before I dissect this week’s song, I would like to take a moment to thank Song Exploder from the bottom of my heart. It’s a neat podcast where the host, Hrishikesh Hirway, gets musicians to break down their songs to component parts to explain how they’re made. I don’t listen to every episode, but I’ve started to go out of my way to listen to episodes featuring artists that I don’t know, and this song is the most recent example of that.
When I first saw Julien Baker described as a singer/songwriter from Memphis, I thought I was going to get a pop-country star trying to hit it big. Instead, what I got was a raw and honest description of a young woman’s battles with addiction and depression. Shame on me for stereotyping.
“Appointments,” from Baker’s 2017 album Turn Out the Lights, is a powerful track that shares similarities to her debut album, Sprained Ankle, but with slightly more polished production. I can’t do a better job of discussing the song’s lyrics than she did on Song Exploder, so I would recommend listening to that episode to hear from her, but suffice it to say that the raw emotion makes you forget that Julien Baker is just 22 years old.
(For what it’s worth, I would also suggest that you listen to the album’s opener, “Over,” which transitions into the beginning of “Appointments.” Near the end of the pod, Baker explains why the original composition got split into two separate songs. They have a really fascinating relationship that’s worth exploring.)
What I love about the song is the feeling it evokes in me. The minimal instrumentation results in a very streamlined, simple song that’s a beautiful vehicle for Baker’s singing. The entire song is built around a looped guitar line with little additional flourishes and piano chords layered in on top of it.
Those flourishes give some extra weight to key passages where Baker’s voice really takes the lead. It’s slightly worn in a way that lets you settle into the track and get comfortable, and there’s really minimal editing beyond maybe some reverb. (Side note: Check out her Tiny Desk Concert at NPR; you’ll see how little production there is on her studio vocals.)
Late in “Appointments,” she repeats the line “I have to believe that it is,” which builds up to an intense final segment where she really belts. Her voice gets raw and raspy, and it cracks and morphs in a way that makes it clear that she’s pouring all of herself into this coda—that everything in the song up to this point has been preparing you for this moment.
Most of the songs I write about seem to have some sort of connection to an experience in my life, but that’s not really the case here. “Appointments” is a relatable song, but I don’t necessarily relate to it, if that makes sense. That’s because Baker is immensely talented at producing emotion in the listener. Her compositions are simple yet memorable, and her voice, which seems like it’s 10 times bigger than her body, is the perfect vehicle for raw personal stories. “Appointments,” and Turn Out the Lights as a whole, are an exhibit in powerful catharsis that you should definitely be listening to.
Until next week.