A few years ago, The New Yorker released an article chronicling the wonder of Julien Baker, published as she toured her debut album Sprained Ankle throughout the U.S. and Europe. I first came across that article in late Sep. of this past year, after Baker — quietly, unceremoniously — released her first single of 2017, “Appointments,” and whispers of a future album release started to dance around various internet forums. The echoes of Sprained Ankle were as insubstantial as the monochromatic fragility that its album cover suggests — Baker’s Mona Lisa smile awash in cool shades of blue — so “Appointments”’s unrestrained emotional liberation, as the piano crescendoed into a blinding rendition of, “And when I tell you that it is / Oh, it’s more for my benefit,” was blindsiding.
I have that article bookmarked on my computer, a piece of writing that I frequently revisited in the weeks after Turn Out the Lights was eventually released in late Oct. of 2017. And as I listened to the album in its entirety for the first time, the 10th time, the 50th time, there was one particular passage that never failed to catch me off guard. It stated that, during Baker’s live performances, “It’s easy to feel, watching her, as if you have walked in on a private act, a girl and her guitar in secret communion. She makes you feel like an interloper, eavesdropping on someone else’s prayers.”
It’s a passage that came to the forefront of my mind, unprompted, this past Wednesday as I stood on the edge of a raised platform hugging the back wall of El Club, watching as Julien Baker took to the stage.
Despite all of its unrestrained glory, the most powerful moments on Turn Out the Lights are those that are largely silent: The muted creak of wooden door hinges signaling the beginning of “Over,” the sudden absence of guitar as Baker sings, “And when I talk I just taste regret / You’re everything I want and I’m all you dread” during “Sour Breath,” the hollow reverberation of Baker’s final, desperate expungement during the final few seconds of “Claws in Your Back.” The same concept holds true for the show: The most powerful moment occurred noiselessly, before the music even started, as Baker walked — quietly, unceremoniously — into view, turning on an orange ghost light before lingering in front of the microphone for a few measured beats. It was here that the voyeuristic quality that fateful article The New Yorker published became abundantly clear: In that moment, her face half-shadowed, her frame dwarfed by the stage’s expanse, Julien Baker seemed intensely vulnerable, our prying eyes caught in her private moment of introspection.
Then the music began. Baker opened her mouth and “Turn Out the Lights” tumbled out, first as a whisper then as a war cry; head tilted towards the heavens, she pushed, “But when I turn out the lights” into the space between us like a prayer. Furrowed brow and twisted mouth lit to flames by the warm glow of the ghost light, Baker was utterly consumed.
Throughout the entirety of the show, from “Turn Out the Lights” to closing song “Go Home,” the audience’s attention did not waver. They didn’t talk, hard to do anything other than stare in mute awe as Baker seemed to pour everything out on stage, songs that weren’t just sung but wrenched out of her chest. Including tracks from both Turn Out the Lights and Sprained Ankle, she transitioned smoothly from song to song. The plaintiff harmonies of “Funeral Pyre” unraveled into “Happy to Be Here”’s ringing chorus, her admonition of “Then why, then why, then why / Then why not me?” held out into a howl. The funeral march progression of “Televangelist”’s soft tempo was held into the lullaby of “Blacktop,” adding substance to its hazy melody. “Rejoice”’s guttural ending fueled Baker’s bruising powerhouse vocals in “Shadowboxing.” Each track complimented the next, making for a seamless performance.
One that wasn’t really a performance at all, but more so a period of holy sanctity from Baker to her music. Her interactions with the audience were minimal, and when she did stop to speak into the crowd, her voice did not draw attention to itself. As intensely as we were focused on her, she was focused on the notes taking in shape in front of her; in front of the microphone, her eyes were always half-shut in concentration; in front of the piano, her body always half-hunched over the keys. The intimacy found in her body language almost as emotive as the songs themselves.
She left the stage much in the same way as she arrived: without warning. As the final piano solo of “Go Home” came to a close, she stood up, gave a slight wave, whispered “Goodbye” in our general direction and disappeared backstage — quietly, unceremoniously, without looking back.