Julien Baker - Turn Out The Lights

by Mark Moody Rating:6 Release Date:2017-10-27
Julien Baker - Turn Out The Lights
Julien Baker - Turn Out The Lights

Julien Baker’s debut album, Sprained Ankle, was one of the best albums, and certainly one of the best debuts, of 2015.  Her laid bare honesty in detailing battles with depression and addiction accompanied mainly by solo electric guitar provided a stark but gripping experience.  Not only that, the songs were well structured and imminently listenable.  Whether it was the ringing looped chord of the title track over lilting vocals or the soaring directness of ‘Something’, they were impactful and empathetic.  She is also compelling to see live, whether in a small club where she easily commands presence or dwarfed on a festival stage with just a guitar and a microphone, where she somehow manages to do the same.  Most large crowds aren’t known for listening attentively to a solo artist, but Baker has the ability to turn that dynamic on its head.  

Given the above, the expectations were high for her next release and a few solid interim singles seemed to pave the way.  As her new album, Turn Out the Lights, begins with a creaking door, boots on the floorboards, the dragging and settling of a piano bench, simply played keys with strings coming in with electric guitar only chiming at the end, the tension of what comes next is only heightened.  The album does roll into its strongest track, ‘Appointments’ at that point with guitar and piano juxtaposing over hushed lyrics with the subject trying to convince herself that things will turn out alright even when they know that it won’t.  The song hearkens to the earlier release but with a bit more going on musically.

Unfortunately, adding piano, strings and more refined vocals does not in and of itself better what came before.  The promo materials imply that there are beams of hope or joy evident in these songs, but what stands out is a pervading sense of hopelessness.  Whether that is lyrically always the case or not, the mood is certainly that.  Baker goes from her normal vocal tone to shouting too many times, especially at the front of the album.  Singing louder shouldn’t obviate the need for a melody or a chorus.  The last line of ‘Sour Breath’ particularly jumps out as it is the only repetitive line of “the harder I swim the faster I sink” that is shouted.  It only serves to punctuate the darkness on display.  The most positive thing that I could glean from the album was in the song ‘Hurt Less’ where the protagonist goes from not wearing a seatbelt at the beginning of the song to buckling up at the end.  Also confiding to another that talking things out together does make life more tolerable.

There are a few musically brighter spots sprinkled here aside from the lead single.  ‘Everything That Helps You Sleep’ has a more traditional song structure with a chorus, additional instrumentation, and the admission that “everything that is supposed to help me sleep at night, doesn’t help me sleep at night” does evoke sympathy.  Likewise, the aforementioned minor key beginning of ‘Hurt Less’ that builds to strings and becomes a powerful duet does stand out from the pack.  However, there are too many songs that are just a slog to get through with little to redeem them musically or topically - ‘Happy to be Here’ and ‘Claws in Your Back’ are just too much wallowing to be endured.  

Baker has enormous talent and I view her as a newer wave of artists that have the ability to make an impact for those with struggles.  Maybe that is an unfair burden, but the last few paragraphs of her recent interview in Rolling Stone where she recounts the riskiness of singing the hymn ‘It Is Well’ to an audience that ultimately clicked and sang along with her is more emotive and redemptive than anything here.  Baker obviously gets it and I know has the capacity to rise above, but here succumbs to the darkness too often taking the listener with her.  That’s not what we need right now, so will hope this is a misstep on the way to more powerful things. 

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