Music Reviews
Turn Out the Lights

Julien Baker Turn Out the Lights

(Matador Records) Rating - 10/10

When Julien Baker released Sprained Ankle, its sparse arrangements and unflinching look at substance abuse, depression and faith made it one of the most cathartic listens in years. Turn Out the Lights digs deeper, exploring her pain in ever more empathetic ways and expanding her musical palette to match. These songs are subtle and focus on Baker’s voice and guitar/piano playing. But some orchestral touches and harmonies give the tracks more room to breathe, rise and fall.

Much of Baker’s dialogue is internal, exploring how solitary these struggles make her feel. The title track builds to an explosive conclusion of crashing chords, as Baker screams out: “When I turn out the lights/There's no one left/Between myself and me.” In Shadowboxing, she’s in a fight that’s happening within and against her own mind. It’s the type of never-ending, all-encompassing battle that no one could understand unless they are going through it themselves. “But you can't even imagine how badly it hurts/Just to think sometimes,” she shouts. On the rough-and-tumble acoustic riff of Even, she pushes away another who cares for her. She doesn’t want her problems to become another’s burden, singing: “So I could be cruel/Yeah I could make you hate me/Would that make it easy?”

Sour Breath flips the perspective, though, with Baker singing of being in a relationship with a substance abuser. She brilliantly gets across the sense of helplessness in trying to aid this person. But no matter what she tries, it’s without success. As she says, “The harder I swim, the faster I sink.”

Some of her most powerful songs are the conversations that she has with God. On Everything That Helps You Sleep, she prays over a bed of heavy piano chords and melancholy strings. “Cause Lord, Lord, Lord, is there some way to make it stop/Cause nothing that I do has ever helped to turn it off,” she sings, hoping for an answer if she gets loud enough. On Happy to Be Here, she wishes for an easy solution for what’s wrong with her. She questions aloud to anyone who will listen: “I heard there's a fix for everything/Then why not me?”

In spite of all the darkness and desperation Baker wades through on Turn Out the Lights, she also embraces the possibility of hope. In Appointments, Baker sings about the breakdown of a relationship. Although everything is falling apart, she’s going to try to keep moving forward in her life. “I think if I ruin this/That I know I can live with it/Nothing turns out like I pictured it/Maybe the emptiness is just a lesson in canvases,” she sings. As she plays a beautiful, fragile piano melody on Hurt Less, Baker uses a seatbelt as a metaphor for self-care. At the start, she doesn’t wear one as she sees no point of saving herself from an accident. By the end, she asks the person she loves to keep driving, as their presence helps to lessen her suffering.

In interviews, Baker described closer Claws in Your Back as the antithesis of Go Home. On that final track from Sprained Ankle, the addictions overwhelm her and leave her begging for help. Here, among a mix of piano and strings that build and crest in waves, she cries out with everything she has that “I think I can love/The sickness you made/Cause I take it all back, I change my mind/I wanted to stay.” It feels like the culmination of both her debut and this album, the moment where she chooses to love herself, flaws and all. It’s one of the rawest, emotional and hopeful songs in recent memory.  

Turn Out the Lights is an immense record that runs a gamut of emotions, from distress to love, anguish to healing. These are songs that you feel more than listen to. Everyone has encountered some sort of mental illness, addiction or crisis of faith, whether in your life or another’s. Not only does Baker prove that you’re not alone, but she finds a way to make it better. [Believe the Hype]