Julien Baker's 'Turn Out The Lights' is a heartbreaking portrait of anguish and melancholy
In 2015, singer-songwriter Julien Baker released Sprained Ankle. Filled with a hushed tenderness, her first studio album tiptoed in shadows. Yet, despite the uniformity of its muted restraint, the album was distinct in its humble reverence. The quavering delicacy of Baker’s voice stripped songs like “Vessels” and “Everybody Does” to their bare bones. Rattling skeletons in the closet, the haunting of Sprained Ankle left a lingering impact.
Now, nearly two years later, Baker has released Turn Out the Lights. The LP fills in the shaky outline of Sprained Ankle with weighty piano and unflinching vocals; the masterpiece that is left behind blooms in full color. In Turn Out The Lights, Baker professes secrets, revelations about anything from past failed relationships to God, with an ache that bruises.
The beginning of the album’s opening track, “Over,” is surprising. Instead of the traditional quiet hum of Baker’s guitar, an audio narrative unfolds: a door creaks open to welcome shuffling footsteps that rattle unseen floorboards; the intimate clatter of someone entering an empty room builds a sense of privacy. As listeners, we are the guests in her home, allowed to trespass on her solitude, voyeurs to her introspective melancholy.
The chronicle in “Over” continues: a piano boldly commences, followed by the sigh of backing instrumentals. No vocals breach the crescendoing climb of orchestral harmonies that eventually tapers out and smoothly transitions into the first verse of “Appointments.” Baker’s murmured “I’m staying in tonight / I won’t stop you from leaving / I know that I’m not what you wanted / Am I?” is a gossamer layer over subdued background harmonies.
Without warning there is an exoneration; within the last few minutes of the song, Baker delivers the chorus in a half-yell. The once nearly indistinguishable piano is now an uproar of crashing chords.
“Turn Out the Lights” follows a similar pattern. The first few verses are like sheer curtains that dance on the edge of subconscious, a soft lull that breaks when Baker does. The cathartic howl of “When I turn out the lights / there’s no one left / between myself and me” reveals the tension and turmoil lying hidden beneath Baker’s initial measured composure.
Julien Baker is defiant in a way that was rarely seen on Sprained Ankle. Her emotive declarations are unapologetic. The profession of “the harder I swim, the faster I sink” in “Sour Breath” rasps with a grating desperation. The question of “then why, then why, then why / then why not me?” in “Happy to Be Here” is a frustrated appeal that intensifies with every repetition.
There is a focus on her struggle with mental health: a loss of purpose and a resulting slip into substance abuse. Songs like “Sour Breath” and “Everything That Helps You Sleep” reveal Baker’s own past experiences, bluntly detailing toxic relationships and insomnia wrapped up in layers of religious iconography — an interpersonal struggle between her Christian faith and the things she has done that she views as sinful. There is no holding back on Turn Out the Lights. The unrelenting anguish is hard not to drown in, but it’s a surprisingly easy album to listen to from beginning to end.
Throughout it all, the consistency of the underlying piano and overarching motifs — stitched together by Baker’s voice as it fluctuates between soothing and heartbreaking — creates an effortless progression; every song feeds into the next. It’s the ceaseless wave of Julien Baker’s most private confessions.