words by mel reeve
Turn Out the Lights is an elegant exploration of personal pain and self-reflection. If you’ve heard Julien Baker’s debut album, Sprained Ankle, you’ll already be familiar with her ability to maintain an atmosphere of gut-wrenching melancholy with only her voice and a guitar. Aged only 20 at the time of its release, she unflinchingly faced the topics of substance abuse, faith, and mental health, and the new record examines some similarly heavy topics.
Although she’s expanded her musical repertoire on this record (at times backed by a full string section), Baker still knows exactly when to pull back for maximum effect. The echoing piano on the evocatively titled ‘Claws In Your Back’ gives her space to show her full vocal potential and ensures you don’t miss a word. “I’m conducting an experiment on how it feels to die,” she sings with fervour.
There is such power in making space to feel the same things that Baker ekes out of you; as she sings out her pain, in that moment it becomes yours. It begins to feel like you’re the only two people in the whole world, it’s just your ears and her voice. I had expected this album to be moving, but I hadn’t dared to hope for such a masterfully curated collection of songs. This album forces you to face a part of life we try to ignore, in the most beautiful way.
Opening track ‘Over’ sounds almost straight from an Olafur Arnalds or Johan Johanson soundtrack. The gentle piano and tender strings would be perfect for the opening scene of some Scandi-detective drama, but instead they weave their way into the first single from this album, ‘Appointments’. Uncomplicated language conveys so much here – Baker is a master of minimalism, using factual statements to devastate quietly. ‘Appointments’ explores the struggle and loneliness of attempting to access medical treatment for mental illness. The bridge echoes a refrain of some kind of hope amongst hopelessness; “maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right, and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is” – a prescient reminder that healing is a process that takes time.
Baker has spoken candidly about how her experiences inform her writing, as she sings on ‘Shadowboxing’, her music involves “screaming my fears into speakers”. The influences of religious music on her style is evident. She’s spoken in interviews on how she is proud to be both queer, Christian and from the American South. As she said in an interview with Pitchfork, ‘sexuality is not one-sided, and neither is religion, and neither is the path to reconciling those things’. These subjects are not addressed explicitly but because her music tackles such personal topics, listening with that information adds another dimension.
Baker is more than capable of facing up to the darkness that lives inside of all of us, sharing her deepest personal demons. She wraps those dark thoughts in delicate metaphors sometimes, and at other points she tackles them unflinchingly. On ‘Turn Out the Lights’ she states how “I’d never do it but it’s not a joke, I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone”. ‘Hurt Less’ calmly recounts over rising piano what is to be intentionally, almost passively reckless as a way to deal with not wanting to carry on; “I used to never wear a seatbelt ‘cause I said I didn’t care what happened.”
Baker’s voice never wavers despite the subject matter, clear and strong, even as she sings of this dream of being “pitched through the windshield”, dropping her voice to an almost-whisper only when she mentions watching her “body float…I hope my soul goes too”. The candid depiction of feeling like this is a little shocking at first, but there is no sense of pretence or malice, it’s a feeling many people will understand and Baker reminds us that you are not alone in feeling that way.
There is a long history of discussion about how pain and suffering is the root of all the best art, particularly if the artist suffers from mental illness or overcomes some personal battle. Personally, I don’t agree with this. I know myself how poor mental health can leave you unable to function at the most basic level, let alone create anything. Baker has made something truly beautiful and powerful out of her darkest moments, but that is a testament to her strength as an artist and performer. Being able to make a whole album that tackles such complex, frightening and even taboo feelings, without it becoming oppressive, is a real feat.
That’s not to say that this isn’t at times a difficult listen; it might bring up emotions you prefer to keep bottled up. For me, however, the most important music is the that which makes you feel what it wants you to feel. You have to surrender yourself and go where she wants you to go, even if it’s difficult to face. Baker closes ‘Hurt Less’ by singing in hymnal tones “this year I started wearing safety belts” – such an apparently small act representing so much; and again, on the closing track, “I changed my mind…I wanted to stay”.
Her portrayal of “living with demons I’ve mistaken for saints” is all the more moving because her ability to write about it shows it is possible to survive. Throughout this album there is a flicker of hope, a reminder that even when you are in the dark place, you’re not alone – someone else has felt like this too.
‘Turn Out The Lights’ is released on October 27th, via Matador
You can pre-order it here