There’s a moment on “Sour Breath,” one of the many highlights on Julien Baker’s second album Turn Out The Lights, where the strings swell, the guitar strums pick up, and Baker’s vocals slowly build until the floor drop outs from under us and her voice breaks through the silence – “The harder I swim, the faster I sink.” It’s a jaw-dropping moment in an album that’s full of them. And stringing those moments together are cathartic confessions throughout Turn Out The Lights – an once-in-a-lifetime album that’ll leave you speechless.
Turn Out The Lights – once again self-produced by Baker – possesses a richer, fuller sound than 2015’s Sprained Ankle while still maintaining its intimate, minimal appeal. The imagery on the album is stunning and the album’s eleven tracks continues to accurately paint a picture of living with depression while struggling with the idea that she’s been rejected by romantic partners, close friends, God, and even herself. Songs like the title track, “Happy To Be Here,” and “Hurt Less” depict those thoughts perfectly.
The album’s title track is a deconstruction of what it can feel like to live with depression. “There’s a hole in the drywall still not fixed. I just haven’t gotten around to it. And besides I’m starting to get used to the gap” is an incredibly accurate look at existing with functional depression while the lyrics “So you wish you could find some way to help. Don’t be so hard on myself. So why is it easy for everyone else?” recalls the outside world’s infuriating interpretation of it. And it’s the song’s haunting conclusion that acknowledges the album’s overall battle, as Baker reveals, “When I turn out the lights there’s no one left between myself and me.”
The Damien Rice-esque beauty of “Hurt Less” covers up the brutal nature of Baker’s lyrics, the visceral image of her body being thrown through the front of a car because she doesn’t care enough to wear a safety belt (“When I’m pitched through the windshield I hope the last thing that I felt before the pavement was my body float. I hope my soul goes too”). It’s a concentrated journey through her psyche, resulting with a promise to start taking care of herself because “when I’m with you I don’t have to think about myself.” While “Happy To Be Here” utilizes searing strings and Transatlanticism-styled piano chords Baker heartbreakingly wrestles with the idea that she cannot be fixed (“A diagram of faulty circuitry explains how I was made. And now the engineer is listening as I voice all my complaints. From an orchestra of shaking metal keeping me awake. I was just wondering if there was any way that you made a mistake”) and questioning God out loud (“Grit my teeth and try to act deserving when I know there’s nowhere I can hide from your humiliating grace”).
And despite the album’s minimalist approach, Baker’s vocals and compositions will surge to a volume that can fill any empty cathedral. The glistening first single, “Appointments,” sets the tone of Turn Out The Lights, as Baker puts on the facade that things will be fine (“Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright. Oh, I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is”) while a gentle guitar chord and heavy piano keys set the pace. The theme of belief – whether in herself, her partner, or her God – continues on “Shadowboxing,” which gorgeously builds with hypnotizing piano keys and strings until Baker’s voice breaks through, desperately wanting to believe she’s loved. As a queer Christian, her daily struggle with her religion takes center stage on the delicate piano ballad “Televangelist.” Baker’s lyrics are incredibly vivid, as a perfectly-timed church organ plays during the peak of the track – “Am I a masochist? Screaming televangelist, clutching my crucifix of white noise and static. All my prayers are just apologies. Hold out a flare until you come for me. Do I turn into light if I burn alive?” It’s a powerful, startling realization, one that Baker punctuates perfectly.
What sets Julien Baker apart from other artists is that her music, her words, and her vocal delivery is something you feel – the knot in your throat, that pain in your chest. It’s pounding in your heart, flowing through your veins, and watering your eyes. When her voice cracks on the devastatingly beautiful acoustic number “Even” – describing the time she punched a hole in the wall at a random Motel 6 bathroom – you feel that pain, that anger, and that desperate loneliness. That’s why it’s such a holy shit moment when she somberly sings, “It’s not that I think I’m good. I know that I’m evil. I guess I was trying to even it out” because every single one of us have experienced that moment. Baker has the rare talent that transcends her music into an out-of-body experience that encapsulates all of your senses.
The album’s final track (“Claws In Your Back”) is Turn Out The Lights knockout punch as Baker bravely faces the fears and doubts littered throughout the first ten tracks of the album. Her voice soars; Baker concludes that she thinks she “can love the sickness you made. Cause I take it all back, I change my mind. I wanted to stay” – the final strain of her vocal chords will reverberate throughout your entire being. And like that we turn off the lights, the piano closes, and the album ends – not all of Julien Baker’s demons have been exhausted but they’ve been confronted, which is sometimes even harder to accomplish, choosing to try her damnedest put them behind her, giving off that elusive glimmer of hopefulness amongst the pain.