Julien Baker’s sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights, was released on 27th October. At the risk of sounding cliché, you should go and listen to it right now (it is definitely better than my writing skills). On a more serious note, Turn Out the Lights is a must listen for anyone who likes melancholy music.
Lyrically, Turn Out the Lights is very personal to Baker and is often brutal in its honesty. With her vast array of personal issues, including substance abuse and mental health, alongside the struggle of being a gay Christian, Baker offers a bleak outlook on life. Her personal experiences as well as her considerable skill as a songwriter give Baker a level of insight into these issues that makes listening to Turn Out the Lights such an interesting, if at times uncomfortable, experience. The sense of discomfort is exaggerated by a sense that you are intruding on something private.
Whilst the album focuses heavily on the artists’ personal experiences, it is refreshing to find one that it does not exclusively on romantic relationships - as is so often the case with intimate releases. Only two songs, Apartments and Sour Breath, explore romantic relationships, whilst the rest of the album focuses on issues personal to Baker and her friends; for example, Hurt Less is about Baker and her friends taking drives to help deal with their problems. This allows Turn Out the Lights to avoid the trap of becoming a list of complaints about failed relationships.
Albums focused on personal issues can also sometimes be difficult to relate to. In this case some of the topics Baker writes about, such as substance abuse and mental health issues, are unfortunately quite common, but are issues that should be discussed within society. The album will undeniably be of particular value to those who experience these issues, but it can also help others to understand these ideas. Even within the album Baker is aware of the aforementioned problem of relating to the personal issues of others:
“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 me.”
Belief is a running theme, both in terms of religion and self-belief. Baker’s exploration of her Christian faith is nuanced and the album benefits greatly from it. It also helps that it yields one of my favourite lyrics: “Am I a masochist / screaming televangelist”. Moments of self-doubt have a particular impact and rawness with the way that they are somewhat explicitly expressed, with lyrics such as “I know I should be being optimistic but I’m doubtful I can change”. This doubt is also clearly expressed in moments where there is a doubtfulness that “it’s all gonna turn out alright”.
The sheer depressive nature of the album can be saddening to listen to, but there is a certain level of self-awareness that suggests that Baker is using music as a form of catharsis. Lyrics such as “screaming my fears in speakers” and “now the engineer is listening as I voice my complaints” show that Baker is using her music to voice her issues and is not always miserable as Turn Out the Lights might suggest. This feeling of cautious hopefulness is clear by the end of the album as Baker finds the will to carry on: “This year I’ve started wearing safety belts.” Ultimately, Turn Out the Lights is just a brilliantly written album with tough themes that I probably haven’t done justice. For a more indepth analysis of the album just listen to any interview with Baker - she is as articulate in person as in song.
Sonically, Turn Out the Lights is as good as it is lyrically. The first two songs, Over and Appointments, offer a very strong start in this department. Over offers a very nice piano melody and its minor key violin reflects the sober tone of the album whilst also offering a hint of hopefulness. Appointments then shows off some excellent subtle production as it seamlessly replaces the piano with guitar and eventually reaches its peak with some very neat voice layering. The skill shown in these first two songs continues through the album.
Baker’s signature reverbed telecaster and raw voice form the core of the album. This combination that was so successful in Sprained Ankle is equally successful in Turn Out the Lights. The beautiful melodic finger picked guitar is a perfect match for Baker’s voice, which itself can move from delicate and introspective, to raw and full of emotion in the choruses.
However, this core dynamic is added to with the skilful use of keyboard, violin and acoustic guitar that gives Turn Out the Lights enough variety to hold your attention throughout. It is also when Baker moves away from her standard instruments that some of the high points of the album occur: the song Over and it’s use of acoustic guitar is a brilliant example of this.
Turn Out the Lights is a testament to what can be done with a guitar, a piano and a whole lot of angst. If that appeals to you then you should probably be listening to Julien Baker right this instant.