“Baker brings others into her matured field of vision, showing her artistic progression over the past couple of years”
Turn Out the Lights is only her second album – but there’s already a real sense of authority surrounding Julien Baker. In the moments from her Middle Tennessee State University and The Star Killers days, she’s opened for the likes of Belle & Sebastian, Paramore and Conor Oberst. It wasn’t until this year that she signed to Matador Records, released ‘Funeral Pyre’ and ‘Distant Solar Systems’, and announced her sophomore LP would be out on the 27th October.
Strangely, it’s not the back-catalogue of songs that captures headlines; Baker is a gay Christian from the South. Speaking to Pitchfork last year, she talked about her home and the situation she found herself in:
“Metropolitan areas are generally more diverse. Maybe it would have been a different story if I had grown up in my grandparents’ dinky little town. It might have been a lot harder to find a community of people that I felt were supportive. Because I had access to Smith7 [a label and substance-free DIY space in Memphis] and the DIY punk scene, and had the option to come out in a non-traditional church, all these things happened to show me that sexuality is not one-sided, and neither is religion, and neither is the path to reconciling those things”.
Given all of this background, it’s no surprise that Baker’s debut, Sprained Ankle, was met with curiosity. Documenting substance abuse, faith-crisis and depression, the tracks gathered hearty reviews – but didn’t get the same end-of-year attention as albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or Björk’s Vulnicura. It was a disservice to a record that possessed immense quality and potential.
That said, Baker returns with Turn Out The Lights – a bigger, more varied album that looks at how inner-conflict influences relationships, and impacts daily life. Recorded at Memphis’ legendary Ardent Studios, there’s far more instrumentation on this second album. ‘Over’ starts with a door opening and a jangle of keys; furniture is moved and a stern piano line is played. It’s austere, yet has a graceful elegance, melting into yearning strings to kick off the LP in the most transcendent way.
‘Appointments’ seamlessly flows from ‘Over’, and sees Baker talk about a lover leaving and admit her flaws (“I know I’m not what you want”). The track’s a pivotal one; assessing the subject matter, Baker explains: “A lot of stuff happened in my life that was rapid change, and it felt like it could not get any worse. I was like, I’ve reached critical mass for this amoeba of sadness, and it can’t possibly turn out all right. But for the sake of my continuing to exist, I have to believe that it will”. ‘Appointments’ is thus devastatingly naked, concerning human suffering and facile conclusions. Baker never glamorises the depths she had to sink to – and is always open to the possibility of rebirth.
If Baker’s debut looked at fitting her sexuality around her religious beliefs, then Turn Out The Lights is the mature espousal of rationality and compassion. The title-track is a tear-stained cut that finds the heroine wondering why things are easier “for everyone else”. Baker’s going through some turbulence, but is keen to find level plains. Her blurred mind is keeping her buzzed; she wants to turn off the lights and go into a slumber filled with escape. It calls to mind the finger-picking delicateness of her debut.
Songs like ‘Sour Breath’ document the shards of a broken relationship, and the bitter aftertaste of romantic hangover. It’s never revealed who the girl is, but Baker’s heart is broken, for sure. ‘Everything That Helps You Sleep’ seeks a cure for insomnia – a tender-kissed lament that questions distance, and instigates the desire for resolve against the storm.
Baker constantly searches for stability throughout Turn Out the Lights, wanting to rewire her brain and be ‘normal’. There are similar themes as on Sprained Ankle, but the fuller production adds so many different dynamics, and ultimately strengths to her work. Baker’s vocals are at their peak – and on ‘Even’ especially, she proves herself to be one of the most evocative voices in modern music. Her taxonomy of mental health struggles and relationship strife means that the disciplined music is never inflexible, and flows organically. It’s a remarkable creation that should top many critics’ best-of-the-year lists; if it does slip under the rada, then it’ll be a huge tragedy. Turn Out the Lights is a phenomenal record that stays in the head long after the needle has lifted.