Album Review: Julien Baker Ups the Anti on 'Turn Out the Lights'
“Wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” Julien Baker sighed on the title track of her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle. The songs on that album were about watching friends die, what happens after we die, wanting to die, and narrowly avoiding death. The stark intimacy of the Memphis singer-songwriter's creations caught listeners off guard, and the album became one of the biggest sleeper hits of the year. After signing to the iconic indie label Matador Records and winning over audiences globally with her powerful live sets, the stakes were high for her follow-up record.
Turn Out the Lights suggests she still has plenty to say on the topic of death. These 11 tracks are still cripplingly sad meditations on failed romances, mental illness, addiction and God. Her lyrics still read like diary entries, ranging from poetic plays on words (“Nothing turns out like I pictured it, maybe the emptiness is just a lesson in canvases”) to the blunt and direct (“Everything supposed to help me sleep at night, don't help me sleep at night anymore”). Each song still sounds like a revelation; a singular expression that sounds very much like a person grappling with her own worst feelings. Only this time, she’s more aware that there are others listening. She sounds less like she’s singing to a blank wall, and a bit more to an audience, most of whom can probably relate to at least some of her experiences.
Much of this boils down to the added instrumentation informing this release. On Sprained Ankle, it was rare to find a song that had more than a single instrument being played at one time, there mostly to provide a companion to Baker’s thoughts. There are moments on this album where this remains true, but there’s also a bit more going on this time around. Continuing from Sprained Ankle’s conclusion ‘Go Home’, the piano has emerged as a new dominant player in the arrangements, frequently anchoring songs while guitars, woodwinds and violin venture into new terrain.
Often, Baker leans into the arrangements rather than the other way around, with the extra layers helping to emphasise and underscore the emotions of the song. It also sometimes gives the songs an optimistic edge. On one of the album's highlights, 'Hurt Less', stirring strings surround Baker as she sings about how finding someone else to think about has helped her consider her own wellbeing; which is about as hopeful as sentiments get on Baker songs.
Of course, Baker’s voice is still the most gripping instrument in her arsenal. One of the most powerful moments on the album comes near it’s halfway point on ‘Sour Breath’. As guitars echo around her, Baker’s multi-tracked voice echo out a simple mantra (“The harder I swim, the faster I sink”) until the music drops out suddenly, leaving her to scream the line out one last time into a distorted microphone. There are similar moments throughout the album when Baker lets her voice soar into her hair-raising higher register, like the epic album-ender 'Claws In Your Back', and it gives you the chills every time. But she is a wise performer, leaving this party trick only to the most cathartic moments, ensuring it never wears thin.
Overall, Turn Out the Lights is a mature and intelligent follow-up effort that seems destined to introduce her to a whole new audience. It isn’t so much a change of direction, but more a continuation and expansion of the sound she already owns so well. Those that found comfort in her wounded debut album are likely to find more of the same this time around, only Julien Baker no longer feels like a well-kept secret. She has well and truly announced herself to the world by now, and it’s well worth it to listen.