The light seems dim and distant for Julien Baker on
Turn Out the Lights. The Memphis singer-songwriter walks into a new chapter that is filled with turbulent turmoil, both internal and external, where the experiences she faces don’t get any easier.
At her 21 years of age, Baker carries herself with a maturity that belies her age. She’s a natural observer who’s comfortable inserting herself into her stories with clarity and concision and hangs on a sparse musical frame by choice and not necessity.
That doesn’t mean that it must be easy for Baker to expose her trauma openly, but early on, she’s conditioned us to expect it. Her debut album,
Sprained Ankle, was nothing less than a collection of hushed electric folk songs that tucked in big emotions between every palm-muted chord. When first single “Appointments” laid the groundwork for her return, it was a clear sign that she’d given her intimate insights a dramatic finesse. “Maybe it’s gonna turn out all right / And I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is” is a chorus for the ages, a defeatist affirmation about heartache that hits those high notes with a universal presence that could rival the likes of Adele and Ellie Goulding.
Baker leans on a familiar path that could surprise those who’d assumed she’d follow the more D.I.Y. punk aesthetic of contemporaries like Waxahatchee or fellow Tennessean Torres, but the catch-all ballads of
Turn Out the Lights sound too unspoiled to be able to only appeal to the misfits. It’s not that she’s decided to dismiss the plaintive delivery she promised on Sprained Ankle, a technique she perfects on the title track with its patient fingerpicking. But what’s different is how she opens up that bare composition on the track’s outro, where she elevates her vocal artistry as she repeats the same chords with a fiery intensity.
From a lyrical standpoint, Baker confronts her struggles without resorting to the kind of blanket statements that could make up a satisfying chorus. She dares to entrench her songs with a spiritual undercurrent, a formative aspect of her upbringing that she can’t ignore. “But there’s comfort in failure/singing too loud in church / screaming my fears into speakers,” she coos with weathered experience on “Shadowboxing”, declared with a stark intimacy that feels like we’re intruding on her personal space. She later questions her purity on “Happy to Be Here”, a solemn confession where she wishes to be “fixed” so she could meet someone else’s absolute ideal of perfection.
That goes to show that Baker speaks from her true nature and experience regardless of how many of the songs on
Turn Out the Lights fit that “Max Martin effect” of delivering show-stopping codas that could fill an audience with tears. Baker is carefully balancing both sides without leaning too far in one direction, and though her songwriting is sharp, its fastidious uniformity makes the whole of it feel one-note. Many of these are love songs, after all, and they carry more weight when she willingly gets lost in her stories. “Everything that Helps you Sleep”, for instance, addresses the mutual faults she shares with her partner with a despairing sigh. It’s effective with as little as an unadorned guitar strum. And then there’s the more candid “Sour Breath”, where she details those little imperfect moments that leave an indelible mark on a relationship with striking beauty; sadly, her insecurities get the best of her as it all turns into shambles: “The harder I swim / the faster I sink.”
One of Baker’s greatest strengths as a songwriter is how she uses art as a coping mechanism. It helps her process overwhelming and uncomfortable emotions, but she also involves the listener, all while stretching her abilities beyond the expectations she’d already created. Though sometimes it teeters on hammy sentimentality (the colorless piano melody on “Televangelist” has the potential to feature on an inspirational commercial), the bulk of
Turn Out the Lights portrays an artist who could move towards serious commercial viability. But the sadness that she communicates is her truthful testimony, and it’ll serve as a cathartic vessel to many for years to come.