How do you go about loving a piece of art that openly expresses itself as a medium for its author’s suffering? Should it be revered by listeners for its ability to channel personal hardships into appreciable creations, or rather approached as a deeply disquieting account of a person’s inner battles with adversity?
These are the pervading questions that Julien Baker raises from listeners on her sophomore release, Turn Out The Lights, an album which begins with the sound of the musician entering a room and sitting down at her piano. What follows is 42 minutes of harrowing insight into the individual afflictions that Baker faces as she searches to preserve herself against such forces. But as her haunting voice grapples with themes of inadequacy and vulnerability, something beautifully ironic starts to occur: Her personal dispositions are given a platform to transcend into a cathartic performance, which listeners can find solace in, by hearing through Baker’s delicate expressions that they’re not alone in their feelings of despair.
Turn Out The Lights portrays a substantial level of musical growth for the Memphis-native, as it departs from the modest approach of her debut album, “Sprained Ankle,” to one of exquisite, multi-layered structure. This broader sound presents itself in the album’s instrumental opening, “Over,” which begins with a dramatic piano line backed by gliding strings fading in and out of phrases. As the track closes, the piano seamlessly shifts into the sound of Baker’s finger-plucked guitar, which carries the same melody in the album’s first single, “Appointments.”
Within “Appointments” lies the essence of Baker’s staggering songwriting abilities, as she addresses a dissolving relationship that she attributes to a debilitative mental illness. The song circles around the prospect of hope for improvement, but Baker has a constant tug of self-deprecation to hold her back. In the face of this seemingly inescapable adversity, Baker repeats a self-assuring mantra of “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright / and I know it’s not / But I have to believe that it is.” This paradox of positive thinking in the shadow of abjection explodes with fervor in the song’s final chorus as if, in Baker’s mind, these sentiments are being fully understood for the first, impassioned time.
Despite the higher degree of production and scope on Turn Out The Lights, the album maintains a steady, minimal backdrop, lacking any percussion and often consisting of only Baker’s sole voice over a lightly picked, reverberating guitar. With so little instrumentation in the way between Baker’s lyrics and the listener, each vibrant syllable of poetry sung carries its own significance. Therefore, allegorical lines like, “Break me down / fold it over your arms / like an unloaded shotgun / dismantled and harmless,” on the song “Shadowboxing” can be focused on for the chilling beauty they depict.
While the duration of Turn Out The Lights exists in a place of despondency, Baker manages to impart feelings of hope that seem to shine greater than the darkness they are fighting against. The album’s closing track, “Claws in Your Back,” shows Baker at her most vulnerable as she meditates on self-destructive behavior. However, the song progresses to a climactic finish, which leaves her triumphantly belting “I change my mind / I wanted to stay.”
This final utterance of hope in defiance of encompassing calamity allows Baker to impart to listeners, as well as herself, the most impactful conviction she’s made so far: You will make it out of this.
Notable Tracks: Appointments, Shadowboxing, Happy to Be Here, Claws in Your Back
By Hayden Goodridge
Review originally published in MTSU Sidelines on November 1st, 2017
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