Review: Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
National Music Reviews
Turn Out the Lights
Julien Baker = Daughter + Paramore
In Turn Out the Lights, Julien Baker jumps into bed with her most lucid nightmares and sings them to sleep.
Baker’s acclaimed 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, was largely stumbled into, recorded over the course of just a few days over a winter break from her college studies. The stark and harrowing honesty of the then 19-year-old Baker and her guitar resounded with listeners and set the tone for her exploration of the human condition as a songwriter. In her second release, we hear Baker plunge intentionally deeper into her darkest, most chilling experiences. Baker treats us to more piano this time around, digging into undulating compositions that ring in both ears and heart.
“Appointments” begins with flickering guitar and sparing piano notes that escalate the tension of Baker’s brutally tender lyricism. The track reaches a crux as Baker wails at the top of her register, “I think if I ruin this / That I know I can live with it.” In an instinctive, almost protective way, Baker leads listeners to a light at the end of the tunnel in her music. In a Matador Records press release, Baker says of “Appointments”: “A lot of stuff happened in my life that was rapid change, and it felt like it could not get any worse. I was like, I have reached critical mass for this amoeba of sadness and it cannot possibly turn out all right. But for the sake of my continuing to exist, I have to believe that it will.”
In the title track for Turn Out the Lights, Baker lets go in a refined, controlled way that we haven’t heard from her before. There’s a lustrous quality to her electric guitar parts, and though she reaches a near scream before the song is over (“The harder I swim / The faster I sink”), the purposeful studio effects point to her knack for analyzing pain objectively. Though Baker has plenty of personal life material to work with as a queer Christian from the Deep South, in Turn Out the Lights, she pivots outward and examines how to interact with humanity’s peaks and valleys. “When I talk about things in myself I find ugly and unlovable, they are the most effective tools for connecting with other people, for helping other people heal,” Baker said to Matador, “And that helps me heal.”
“Claws in Your Back” underlines Baker’s urgent desire to reconcile good and evil—in relationships, religion and recovery from addiction and mental illness. The seething piano and feverish lyrics make for a bitterly optimistic closing to Turn Out the Lights. Baker sings, “I think I can love the sickness you made,” offering herself up for sacrifice in place of being a helpless bystander to friendship’s agony.
“Happy is kind of a fleeting and transient emotion,” Baker told Matador. “It is not a destination that you can get to by exerting enough mental effort. I believe that joy is something that you can invite into your present circumstance. Whereas happiness seems to be this horizon that’s eternally getting further from you, joy is something that you can inhabit.”
Turn Out the Lights is Baker opening the closet door and fearlessly ushering in the full spectrum of darkness so that she may better appreciate the light slowly but surely creeping through the cracks. –Kia McGinnis