The long-awaited sophomore album from Memphis, Tennessee’s Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights was released last week. It was long-awaited because her debut, Sprained Ankle, was one of the best debut records in years. Sprained Ankle was full of heart-wrenching songwriting, from heartbreak to depressive thoughts, Baker’s music hits direct to the heart. It was such a strong release that it attracted critical acclaim from critics and fellow musicians, such as The National’s Matt Berninger, Sharon Van Etten, and many others. Her latest LP builds on that record, and Baker has created another personal, emotional, and raw record.
Turn Out the Lights starts with a beautiful piano and string laden instrumental intro “Over”. The strings then vanish and the piano dissolves into the finger-picked guitar of “Appointments”, which is one hell of a strong start to the record. It builds and builds to a huge moment where it feels like the vocals completely overwhelm the guitar while Baker sings:
“Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right.
I know that it’s not
But I have to believe that it is”.
Her way of striking so close to the heart with her lyrics continues right from the first lines of “Turn Out The Lights”. Another huge build envelops the song with assistance from a little distortion and a ton of reverb, and Baker’s voice nearing a scream.
Like her first record, the main focus on Turn Out The Lights is on Baker and an instrument. There are huge crescendos throughout the record, but they are achieved without the typical indie-rock driving drums and bass lines. It’s all driven by Baker’s voice and percussive finger-picking. “Sour Breath” escalates with Baker repeating, “The harder I swim, the faster I sink”, harmonizing and building until a lone, distorted, final gasp. Meanwhile, “Shadowboxing” has this gorgeous layer of piano and strings underlying that formula.
After “Sour Breath” comes two striking piano ballads, “Televangelist” and “Everything That Helps You Sleep”. The clever lyricism in “Happy to Be Here” makes it one of the record’s stand-out tracks, as Baker sings about repairing the wiring in her brain to making a heartbreaking plea.
“I heard there’s a fix for everything
Then why not me?”
It’s raw emotion, and the listener feels every ounce of Baker’s pain. It’s followed up by “Hurt Less”, which is probably about as optimistic as a Julien Baker song can get. The record comes to close with the one-two punch of the acoustic guitar-led “Even” and the absolute whirlwind track “Claws in Your Back”.
The sophomore slump has become a tired cliché this year. So many great bands have followed up great, groundbreaking debuts with stellar second efforts. Julien Baker is no exceptions. Turn Out The Lights will feel instantly familiar to those listeners who loved Sprained Ankle. It’s just as intimate, just as heartbreaking, and just as beautiful as you’d expect from Julien Baker. The only difference is that she’s able to add more layers to her music, not just in terms of instrumentation via strings but also in life lessons and wisdom seemingly far beyond her twenty-two years. The end result is without a doubt one of the years best records.
Featured photo by Nolan Knight
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