Despite her smaller stature and vocals that play into the general sweetness of her tone, singer-songwriter Julien Baker packs a hell of a punch. Her debut album Sprained Ankle in 2015 inspired a wave of fans who were instantly taken with her powerful and poignant lyrics, a mastery over creating haunting vocals and the juxtaposition of her faith based background and her battle with mental illness. Songs such as “Funeral Pyre” and “Rejoice” merely hinted at the might that she possessed to bury herself into her listener’s psyche, playing both with the euphoria of life, the determination it takes to stay alive and the want to be better, to feel better, to live a life with her demons harmoniously. Turn Off the Lights is, undoubtedly, a triumph of utmost importance, an album where the messages and melodies go hand in hand, working in tandem to create something great and something that both offers and takes from those who connect to it.
Following the opening prelude, “Over”, “Appointments” casts a glow over what the album is going to entail. An artist who stays meditating in her own headspace, Baker doesn’t so much pivot from what she’s become known for as she builds and matures on an original thesis statement. Her tremendous ability to make something so singular – so personal – such as depression becomes a welcoming embrace to the world weary, the dejected and love lorne, has often been one of her greatest gifts. There’s a deep breadth of power in the ability to create art that touches both on the individual and the masses. In “Appointments” as she sings about not knowing how to get out of bed, of making promises she can’t keep and ensuring others she understands their disappointment, she displays her ability to connect.
It’s been stated that she has the ability to render an entire auditorium silent. She transports just about anyone into her own chappel, her voice ricocheting off the walls and into our hearts. “Appointments” was the strongest first single to release as it both encompasses what we’ve come to know from her – the powerful crescendos into her late in the song bridges, vocals that dip and weave from folksy whimsy to her chest vocals as she belts the refrain, leaving us hollow, an empty chamber from the poignancy she shares. It also, along with the second single “Turn Off the Lights” ensures that while there’s some stability to her sound, she isn’t afraid to go bigger.
Beyond the meaning, there’s the sound, which has only grown fiercer and more haunting as she’s matured as a musician. Songs such as “Televangelist” strips it all down for a simple but moving song that relies heavily on the piano. It, along with “Sour Breath” also show how she utilizes repetition for a reason, building and building on a single line, a single refrain to prove a point or subvert melodic expectations. When the organ strikes up it adds a layer that’s genuinely surprising, despite the natural expansion of it for a song that leans so heavily on religious lyricism at the end. Also one of her most hopeless, the piano based song allows for those chords to strike resonance into listeners.
Her strongest songs on the album – beyond the cleansing two singles – are “Happy to Be Here” for it’s witty and insightful lyrics and the way that it refuses to play with familiar melodies and “Claws in My Back” the forceful and inspiring track that creates the final realization that maybe this song, more than the forays into the darkness lingers in those of us who have battled any form or depression or other mental illness, and this album is actually about the light, the hope, at the end of the tunnel. It’s also perhaps her greatest achievement yet in songwriting.
In the former she sings “why not me” in regards to there being a fix to everything and it’s how that fix is defined and the way the song moves from a slow, meandering pace to a crescendo of soulful vocals and strong backing instrumentals that display some of her finest lyricism and structures. It’s as if she’s reading aloud a diary entry. An ode to the ongoing and persistent process that is dealing with drug abuse and mental illness, it’s a song that devolves from wanting the quick fix to realizing putting in real work is what matters.
“Claws In Your Back” paints the pictures of our literal and figurative demons that cling to us and try to drag as back under. A song about having suicidal thoughts but choosing to stay nonetheless, there’s such untempered raw emotions in this song that it’s difficult not be immeasurably moved. In the last verse she sings:
“I’m better off learning/How to be/Living with demons I’ve/Mistaken for saints/If you keep it between us/I think they’re the same/I think I can love/The sickness you made/Cause I take it all back, I change my mind/I wanted to stay/I wanted to stay”.
A rallying call to the living and the wounded to stay and trudge on. The song beginning with just Baker’s voices coasting over the piano, the song, like so many of her best, builds and builds until it’s a sheer explosion of sound. Without the music it’s just poignant poetry, and her ability to warp catchy, unusual melodies around songs that are so honest is a gift, more so when you realize how young she is.
All of this brings us back around to the first song, “Appointments” as she sang “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right/ And I know that it’s not but I have to believe that is is.”
Baker, as she did with her powerful debut album, deals with anxiety and depression in a manner that resonates because she doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out. Instead, she touches on feelings and emotions that we’ve resonated with and waged war with. It plays with that anger that bubbles and creates a shadowy monster with its hackles raised, hovering over you. She captures the sadness that ties cinder blocks to your ankles, apathy that turns you inward and shame that locks it all away. But most surprisingly mighty is that faith, the hope that while today may be hard, and today may be the day when you can’t leave the safe folds of your bedspread, nevertheless your home, tomorrow is another day, it’s the day we get out of bed.
For all of the neatly positioned, lyrical delicacy and an image that’s been crafted to portray raw and visceral sorrow, Baker’s sophomore album Turn Out the Lights” has a bountiful of fight buried within, clawing its way to the surface.