No one is more critical of Julien Baker than herself. Throughout Turn Out the Lights, her groundbreaking second album, and first for Matador Records, she refers to herself as a masochist, a hypocrite, a jumble of faulty circuitry resulting from a flawed design. A blistering examination of depression and self-doubt, her album displays just how exhausting it can be to find even semblances of hope when feeling drowned by anxieties. Over the course of 45 minutes, she exposes her deepest insecurities in an effort to form a meaningful connection with her audience, finding no easy answers along the way.
Emerging from the DIY scene in Nashville in 2015, Baker took the scene by storm on Sprained Ankle, a pared down yet achingly powerful album. The then 19-year-old singer built a following with brutally honest ballads about working to overcome substance abuse and live through depression. Whereas her debut was sparse and solitary, Turn Out the Lights finds Baker widening her scope to cavernous levels where each echo is acutely felt. Cam Boucher’s woodwinds and Camille Faulkner’s violin add flourishes, but Baker’s poised use of piano, organ, and electric guitar lays the groundwork for an expanse that can contain her tremendous voice, which she lets out in full force. As songs like “Appointments” and the title track show, she has grown assured in letting her vibrant voice carry the weight of her words, making for a devastating combination.
One of Baker’s many talents is the ability to create entire worlds out of the most intimate moments. The details in a song like “Sour Breath”, where she pretends to lie asleep in bed knowing her partner is drinking alone in the other room to avoid seeing her, capture the raw pain of feeling like a disappointment with searing clarity. On “Hurt Less”, the longing in her voice is pronounced as she asks for just a few minutes more to talk with a friend in a car so she doesn’t have to go inside and face herself. These internal battles are fought in the most personal spaces, the moments alone in the dark with just one’s thoughts.
Baker’s faith has been a focal point throughout her career, stretching back to the first time she played music for a crowd of people as part of a church band. Praise music, especially the kind played by teenagers in the South, is marked by dramatic builds, effusive delivery, and designed for a makeshift choir to sing to, all qualities as ingrained in Baker’s music as her time in DIY punk bands. Faith is still a key component on Turn Out the Lights, but with an emphasis on the struggle over absolution. Baker finds herself boxing with the devil and screaming at god for a way to fix her, framing these internal anxieties in the greater context of the eternal struggle for the soul. On closer “Claws in Your Back”, she remarks barely above a whisper that she’s been fighting with demons she’s mistaken for saints. “If you keep it between us, I think they’re the same,” she sings in a moment of realization.
Baker’s struggle with faith and doubt follows a long tradition of rock’s relationship with religion, one that hews much closer to Brand New’s fraught questioning than Switchfoot’s bold proclamations. Baker cited The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me as an influence on her album, and the appreciation is mutual, as Jessie Lacey has performed a subdued cover of “Sprained Ankle” on multiple occasions. Like the classic 2006 record, Turn Out the Lights is able to wring tension out of its quiet moments before culminating in explosive crescendos like its thundering title track. She’s collaborated with Frightened Rabbit and Touche Amore in recent years, and as different as those two artists may seem, Baker’s presence serves as a connective tissue through the ability to evoke heightened emotion that steers clear of sentimentality or self-flagellation, a skill she fully displays herein.
Baker explained in interviews that she had to consciously avoid writing an overwhelmingly sad record and instead made an effort to include “the provision of hope” in her songs. This tragic contradiction comes to play on rousing single “Appointments”, where steadfast hope directly clashes with her sense of resignation. She starkly captures how depression can consume and make daily tasks seem insurmountable, to where the simple act of clicking in a seat belt as a form of self-preservation becomes a challenging accomplishment. As she begs to “take it all back” on the album’s final moments, it recalls the cathartic plea of Trent Reznor on “Hurt” as Baker desperately clings for a way out of her own spiral of self-loathing. Baker’s songs deftly avoid fetishization of suffering and instead illuminate how it feels to question your own worth on a daily basis.
Growing up as a queer Christian in Memphis, Baker has written at length about wrestling with how much of herself she can reveal at any given point in time. As a result, the act of opening up her wounds and sharing her uncertainties throughout the record is a bold step forward, offering a path for others in similar situations. Baker has expressed awe at seeing her tales of profound loneliness embraced by listeners, which speaks to the universal sentiments she taps into. Whether it’s the slight crack in her voice on “Everything That Helps You Sleep” or the way she stretches out the words “why not me” on “Happy To Be Here”, each turn of phrase carries a lifetime within. Turn Out the Lights is a rich, moving work that creates a communion of sorts, an acknowledgement that the little victories are worth embracing even if salvation seems utterly out of reach.
Essential Tracks: “Appointments”, “Turn Out the Lights”, “Sour Breath”, and “Hurt Less”