Back in 2015, a little known Tennessee songwriter named Julien Baker released her first album, Sprained Ankle. That intimate collection of songs, originally self released, featured little more than Baker and her guitar but sowed the seeds of her rise to success. Fast forward to the present, with Baker now signed to Matador records, the release of her sophomore follow-up Turn Out the Lights has been hugely anticipated.
Two years on from that debut, the production values have risen alongside the stakes. Opening with a stunning instrumental introduction, the quiet piano and strings soon give way to the quiet reverb guitar of ‘Appointments’, setting the tone for the rest of the album. The music is an indicative of the mood as the album’s title. Fittingly the best way to appreciate Turn Out The Lights is to do just that. The repeating guitar motif and Baker’s voice focus on a broken relationship, therapy and the fall back of “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right/And I know that it’s not/But I have to believe that it is.”
Emotional fragility abounds as Baker explores her own emotional state and at times its effect on others. Much has already been written about Baker’s backstory, from substance abuse to her turbulent identity as a queer Christian. On ‘Happy to be Here’ sings of therapy, mental illness and a desire to be fixed, while elsewhere she touches on her faith with cries to god or ‘living with demons, I’ve mistaken for saints’.
She has a voice capable of carrying and conveying raw emotion. On ‘Sour Breath’ the self defeating mantra of ‘The harder I swim, the faster I sink’ is repeated over and over as a second voice rises to a shout in the background. It’s heavy hitting. While Baker has stated in interviews that she sees hope in the songs, it can only be grasped at. Even the devotion of ‘Hurt Less’ is down to taking her mind off herself.
Musically, Turn Out The Lights rarely expands beyond a palette of sparse guitar or piano, quiet and reflective. The lyrics are intimate and personal but the sense of space in the music is just as important. When Baker delivers a line of quiet defeatism or even the long cry of ‘I wanted to stay’ that closes out the album, it rings out clear and true. The addition of extra instrumentation heightens the atmosphere in some of the record’s finer moments including some wonderful strings in ‘Hurt Less’. The focus remains on Julien Baker’s voice throughout.
Turn Out The Lights is a real exploration of melancholy and devastating self doubt. It can be unrelenting with moments of salvation few and far between. Still, there is undoubted beauty in its sadness.