Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
Julien Baker's new album is universal in scope, although at times it becomes somewhat claustrophobic
It’s hard to listen to Julien Baker’s music in a room with other people, or even sitting upright. It’s harder to imagine how she manages to share it with the world. The Memphis artist writes stark, personal stories, shaped from the moments of clarity that come in sleep-deprived panic and unexpected bursts of thought, quiet conversations and achingly loud ones. Her debut album, Sprained Ankle, was a slow-burning word-of-mouth triumph. Baker’s weighty stories of trauma were coloured by arpeggiated guitar lines, delicate and precise. These songs are undeniably pretty and occasionally euphoric, but the modest presentation let Baker’s thoughtful words, and the stunning voice that carries them, sink into your bones.
Given the heft of that record, it’s unsurprising to learn that Baker never expected Sprained Ankle to be heard outside of a small circle of friends. Many have relied on her songs for comfort in the time since, and the follow-up has the challenge of retaining the honesty of the debut while Baker grows into her fame.
Turn Out the Lights is a frank reflection of Baker’s dark parts. It transcends her own circumstances to create something universal in scope, without leaving the beautifully sketched walls of her apartment. The record begins with the slam of the apartment door and the jangle of keys, then the creak of wood within a piano. The gentle, cradling chords blossom into Appointments, the record’s lead single, perhaps the most powerful song Baker has ever released – a frustrated description of seeking help, surrounded by those who don’t understand.
Unfortunately, the song summates the lyrical and sonic mood, and every mantra repeated after can feel flat and cyclical. The record becomes claustrophobic in its emotional and melodic range. Baker doesn’t shy away from the weight of depression, but depending on your emotional state, the album is either cathartic or overbearing, like fluorescent lights to tired eyes. On NPR, Baker jokingly performed the then-unreleased Funeral Pyre as 'Sad song #11'. Though self-aware and deeply moving, the singer’s sad songs #13 through #23 don’t do much to separate themselves from what’s come before.
Still, the moments that most connect are where she lets the flaws crack through, like the half laugh that escapes on Happy to be Here, on a line about missing nicotine. The medicinal quality of being alone with Baker’s vocal will still captivate for many. Others may find it too familiar, too close to home.
Listen to: Appointments, Televangelist