Album Review: Julien Baker - Turn Out The Lights
I download Julien Baker’s debut LP, Sprained Ankle, around two months after it’s released based on the positive press and buzz she’s getting. Maybe I listen to it once through; maybe it, like so many mp3s on our laptop, go unplayed once downloaded and transferred into iTunes.
I think I downloaded it in earnest, with the intent to write a review. However, if memory serves me correctly, by the end of 2015, I was slowly descending into the unimaginable depths of a very, very serious depression. Writing reviews, among doing, oh, I don’t know, just about anything else, became a feat of herculean strength for me, so Sprained Ankle, like many albums, goes unwritten about.
I am in my living room crying while listening to Turn Out The Lights, Baker’s sophomore album, because it is simply one of the most devastating, visceral things I have ever encountered.
It is, without a doubt, the best record of 2017.
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It’s unfortunate to think that I nearly slept on Turn Out The Lights; Baker’s name began appearing again in music news headlines, and I thought, ‘Hey, that girl has a new album coming out. I don’t even know if I ever listened to that other one.’
But then her name began appearing in more than just headlines—Baker has been the subject of incredibly lengthy profiles from a diverse mix of news outlets, including Stereogum, The New Yorker, and The New York Times to name a few.
I realized that Turn Out The Lights, and the buzz surrounding Baker was no joke. She, and this album, both demand to be taken seriously. And rightly so.
Albums like Turn Out The Lights don’t come along every day. An artist can go their entire career and not come close to achieving something like this—this is the kind of album that stops you in your tracks; that knocks the wind out of you.
In the myriad profiles on Baker, much has been made of her faith and spiritualty, her sobriety, and her sexual orientation. Many of the interviews for the Turn Out The Lights album cycle discuss her Christian upbringing and religious convictions—but don’t let that turn you away. This is not a ‘Christian’ record and Baker is not a ‘Christian’ musician in the sense you may be thinking, though her faith, and the struggles that come along with it, play a huge role in her lyrics.
In going back to review Sprained Ankle after listening to Turn Out The Lights, it’s not a night and day difference, but it’s the story of an artist that matured very quickly, and found an admirable amount of confidence in herself as a fearless singer and songwriter. On Sprained Ankle, yes, there was a lot of promise, but Baker had room to grow—the songs themselves were recorded over a short period of time in 2014, released online, and then properly mastered and reissued by 6131 the following year.
Turn Out The Lights begins with a short introductory track before sliding into “Appointments,” one of the singles released in advance; a slow burning and swaying piece, Baker has not let her Matador Records budget go to her head. There’s a disarming amount of depth and texture when compared to her earlier material, but the arrangements are still very, very sparse—“Appointments” incorporates a few guitar lines and the piano.
Baker wastes no time laying it all on the table—“You don’t have to remind me so much how I disappoint you,” she sings on “Appointments. “Suggest that I talk to somebody again that knows how to help me get better. And ‘til then, I should just try not to miss any more appointments.” Is this about her? Is this about someone else? Is this about her sobriety? Is this about her mental health? For someone who is willing to share so much of themselves in their lyrics, Baker is also smart enough to maintain a small amount of ambiguity, which makes her songwriting all the more impressive as well as captivating.
The entire album, as a whole, from start to finish, is like one, long, unrelenting punch in the stomach. But there’s a specific moment in the album’s titular track—it’s one of the moments that hits the hardest, and packs some of the most emotional weight. It’s when the refrain hits, and Baker, with all she can summon, bellows, “When I turn out the lights, there’s no one left between me and myself,” punctuating it with a tap on the distortion pedal to drive it all home even harder.
Turn Out The Lights is best taken as a whole—that’s how it is made to work; however, with that being said, there are additional high points as the album continues to unfold, including the stunning centerpiece: the slow burning, powerful piano ballad “Televangelist.” It’s the longest song on the record (almost five minutes), and finds Baker using some of the most evocative language in her lyrics—“I’m an amputee with a phantom touch, leaning on an invisible crutch, pinned to the mattress like an insect to Styrofoam, calling out from my bedroom alone.” It’s also on “Televangelist” that she confronts her strong faith, as well as the confliction that comes along with it.
The album concludes with a powerful double shot—the acoustic and snarling “Even”—and again with the lyrics here: “Is that what you want? For me to be miserable like you—well, brother you’re about to get your wish” Baker continues to hold nothing back, all while dressing up these truths with just enough vagueness.
This is followed by the most dramatic, bold song of the set—“Claws in Your Back,” structured around frisson inducing string arrangements and huge stabs at the piano keys, Baker calls this the ‘antithesis’ to the closing track from Sprained Ankle—“Go Home,” a devastatingly personal piece about her own struggles with sobriety; here, she’s reaching out as best she can to friends in the same situation.
It’s also on “Claws in Your Back” where, if she hadn’t made you a believer with the first nine songs on the album, this is where it happens—beginning around the 3:30 mark, Baker hits two incredibly powerful, long notes, creating a go for broke moment that, if you haven’t already given it to her by now, demands your attention, adoration, and respect.
I would have never guessed that 2017 would be the year of ‘the sad girl,’ but between Turn Out The Lights and Phoebe Bridgers' Stranger in The Alps, it is clear that melancholic and emotional young women, armed with guitars, pianos, and lyric sheets filled with devastation are who we should be listening to. With Turn Out The Lights, Baker fulfills the potential that folks saw in her two years ago—she’s grown leaps and bounds from her home-recorded days, but she is a smart enough songwriter to know that her music doesn’t need to be weighed down with additional instrumentation or truly slick studio production. It’s still raw; it’s totally visceral and cathartic; it’s an album so good that it makes me feel bad.