Turn Out the Lights
Matador Records Limited · October 27, 2017
Julien Baker first caught my eye with an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. I’d been binge-watching episodes on NPR Music’s channel, and was immediately blown away when I stumbled across her. The performance was intimate and simple with just her voice, an electric guitar, and a loop pedal. Her voice had such raw emotion that filled the room with painstaking beauty as she began her first song with the line, “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” As I listened to her debut album and now her recent Turn Out the Lights, it only feels fitting that the first lyric I ever heard her sing has continued to describe the mood of the rest of her music. It’s impossible to deny how depressing it all is, but Baker has managed to turn her pain into a captivating art form. Her work is hauntingly relatable to anyone who’s ever been sad before, welcoming the darkness to unify the songwriter and the listener. It’s the kind of pain you almost enjoy feeling.
The album opens with the sound of a door opening and creaking floorboards as someone walks into the studio to sit at a piano, reminding the listener that there’s a person behind this all who’s ready to let us into her mind. It’s a humanizing way to start a dramatic movie score-like instrumental. Cinematic ‘Over’ acts as a seamless interlude into the first single off the album, ‘Appointments,’ where Baker begins entrancing the listener with her heartbreaking lyrics. She sings about her struggles with a relapse of depression and its negative impact on her relationship, setting the tone for what the next 9 tracks have in store. There’s this sense of guilt and hopelessness present as she reflects on how she doesn’t want to concern anyone, but doesn’t think she’ll ever feel better and just has to live with her emptiness. She sings, “maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright / and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.” This line seems to be the one that just breaks her, as she belts out the rest of the verse and repeats herself. Her increase in volume is a painful, desperate cry. It’s a common tactic she uses throughout the album. Most of the songs end with her reaching her breaking point and belting out the last few lines. It doesn’t get old though – the raw emotion hits just as hard every time her voice reaches new volumes.
Her loneliness continues into the title track and second single, ‘Turn Out the Lights.’ Instead of promising to get better, she sings about how being alone just makes it even worse. Baker alludes to suicidal thoughts, her inability to tell whether she’s serious about it, and the pain of being alone with her thoughts. The song itself is a simple chord progression and could get monotonous quickly, but once again, her voice and her words take over. The minimal instrumentation creates an atmosphere that isn’t meant to overpower her words. By the time it does pick up in intensity, Baker’s voice follows and continues the balance between vocals and instruments, continuing the pattern of her reaching a breaking point like she’d done in the song prior.
The focus shifts from solely depression to further struggles in the next few tracks. ‘Sour Breath’ deals with a partner’s substance abuse issues and the guilt that comes from being a burden to someone who’s already burdened themselves. The repeated “the harder I swim / the faster I sink” at the end makes it a memorable track. After this point, ‘Televangelist’ and ‘Everything That Helps You Sleep’ seem a bit lackluster. The two piano ballads placed right next to each other have a tendency to blend into each other. Upon multiple listens, I found myself zoning at the same point between the two songs. The album as a whole isn’t very varied musically anyway, and while that isn’t usually an issue, they just seemed to be the same thing with the only difference being the endings.
‘Happy to Be Here’ brought my attention back with a slightly more upbeat sounding chord progression. It isn’t until ‘Even,’ though, that anything is drastically different. Here, she brings out an acoustic guitar instead of her usual looped electric guitar. The sparse addition of a violin adds to the mood a bit, but the impact really lies in its very sparse use. It’s not happy by any means, but it’s sort of like a breath of fresh air with a deviation from her tried-and-true formula. ‘Claws in Your Back’ ties everything together as the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Baker stated in an interview that she meant for it to act as an antithesis to the closing track on her previous album – ‘Go Home’ off Sprained Ankle. In the latter track, she discusses the hopelessness her friends feel, but ‘Claws in Your Back’ is about working through self-destructive behaviors and wanting to stay through it all. Her final lines are where she finally decides that throughout all the darkness in her life, she’s willing to keep living and working on herself. “I think I can love / the sickness you made / ‘cause I take it all back, I changed my mind / I wanted to say,” is followed by a door quietly closing. It isn’t until this moment that the whole record makes sense. It’s as if the whole album was a therapy session and here she finally has hope after letting out all of her issues. She’s purged a bit of the darkness inside of her, and is ready to continue living with the knowledge it doesn’t belong to just her anymore.
The album is simple, yet complex at the same time. There isn’t a single drum on the record, and the sparse harmonies are only Baker singing to herself. The solo nature of it further embodies her loneliness. Upon a few listens of the album, I found myself needing to take breaks from the intensity for the sake of my own sanity. I can’t see myself being able to listen to it every day, but that’s what makes it so special. The emotional journey she takes the listener through is like that tear-jerking film that you love but can’t watch unless you emotionally prepare yourself. Julien Baker’s ability to pour her heart and soul into every part of Turn Out the Lights makes her stand out as a truly genuine artist.