Album review: Julien Baker's 'Turn Out the Lights'
I’ve spent the past two days listening to Julien Baker’s “Turn Out the Lights” and my takeaway is this: it’s really, really good.
Beyond that, I can’t really give you a complete, accurate review. Julien offers a certain depth of lyricism that requires dozens of revisits before you can truly wrap your head around it. There are still lines from her 2015 offering, “Sprained Ankle,” that seem to suddenly appear for the first time, nearly two years after its release.
I was never particularly struck by the line, “I’ve kissed enough bathroom sinks to make up for the lovers that never loved me,” until I saw it live in LA. It’s not that I ever thought poorly of the lyric. Rather, I never really heard it until that moment. That’s just the way her music is.
TOtL is a fitting follow-up to her breakout debut, satiating her growing legion of fans while showcasing her progress as an artist and as a person. Baker’s particular brand of emotional honesty brings a rare connection to her listeners. To be a fan is to feel like a friend, hearing her words and relating to them on a deeply personal level.
It creates a certain pressure to maintain that honesty. There’s a fine line between vulnerable and sappy, and if-ever present, phoniness always seems to bubble to the surface. There isn’t much room to hide a forced-effort when the entire production is a one-piece band with a guitar and the occasional piano.
It all plays into the appeal. When done correctly, the result can be beautiful. It’s a terrifying thing to spill your heart out on an album, and yet, the risk can pay off handsomely.
Upon hearing her two early releases, the singles, “Appointments” and the title track, “Turn Out the Lights,” I was left wanting a little more. The way I saw it, “Sprained Ankle” was still there if we needed it, so why not give us something completely different?
After listening to the album for the first time, front-to-back, I was happy the change was subtle. I forgot what it felt like to be immersed in her music; the way the ambient guitar and haunting vocals almost hypnotize you, forcing you into a state of self-reflection; inviting you into her world.
“Shadowboxing” was an early favorite of mine. The message of loneliness that persists throughout most of the record seemed especially pointed in this track. Through imagery of an invisible battle with her personal demons, she manages to both paint a picture of her pain and explain how well-intentioned people often miss the mark with their helping-hand.
“I know that you don’t understand / ‘Cause you don’t believe what you don’t see / When you watch me throwing punches at the devil / It just looks like I’m fighting with me”
This theme carries throughout the album, coupled with an inherent guilt for burdening those around her. In “Sour Breath,” there’s a feeling of regret for leaning on others, while “Televangelist” describes an impulse towards isolation.
“My heart is gonna eat itself / I don’t need anybody’s help / It’s just me, the vacant and nobody else / At least that’s what I tell myself”
The album concludes in epic fashion, depicting a final battle between Julien and her demons. The internal struggle finally reaches a head, echoing the Shakespearean question, “To be, or not to be.”
“Wearing a purple badge to prove what I did / Pump the vitals out of my wrist / ‘Cause I’m conducting an experiment on how it feels to die / Or stay alive”
The final line, “I wanted to stay,” repeated twice at the end of the album was the most impactful, simultaneously expressing optimism and regret with the usage of the past-tense; as if it’s already too late.
The narrative of this album can be taken as a cautionary tale or a tragic one, but shares pieces of both. Her life is a series of Catch-22’s leaving her hopeless and trapped. The only means of escape leads to a feeling of guilt. It’s a circle, mirroring that of addiction and depression. It’s a beautifully-painted metaphor of an often-avoided topic.
Julien Baker is only 22 years old and has a deeper understanding of mental and emotional health than people twice her age. She’s one of the fastest-rising stars in the indie folk scene and she’s deserving of all the accolades. If you haven’t seen her perform, do it. If you haven’t listened to this album do that, too.
Then you can brag to all your hipster friends that you knew about Julien Baker before they did.