Review: Julien Baker stuns on ‘Turn Out The Lights’
Julien Baker’s sophomore album begins with the sound of a door opening. Beyond just to signal the start of the record, it also seems to signal that Baker’s ready to move up from being a semi-unknown singer-songwriter to the forefront of the indie rock scene. Back in 2015, Baker released her debut full-length, Sprained Ankle, and took a lot of people by surprise. She was a college freshman then and the vocalist for a little-known indie rock band called Forrister. The album was recorded in a couple of days by a friend and self-released quietly on Bandcamp. There’s almost no way she could’ve expected the album to get as big as it did – or resonate with as many people as it did. With Turn Out the Lights, however, that expectation is already there. And Baker’s ready to tackle it.
The single “Appointments” gave a good taste of what to expect from Turn Out the Lights. More piano, for one thing – while Sprained Ankle was mostly just Baker’s voice and a guitar, piano features much more prominently here. The song is larger in scope than anything off her debut, too. The songs on Sprained Ankle were so raw and sparse they could’ve been demos, but “Appointments” sparkles with a post-rock sheen, crisp and clear, replete with gorgeous vocal melodies and a bridge that finds Baker belting, “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright. I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.”
Her lyrics are one thing that hasn’t changed much. Her hyper-personal, wise-beyond-her-years lyrics were a big draw for many, and she’s as honest and heartwrenching as ever. “Tell me you loved me,” she begs on the lovely “Shadowboxing,” before confessing, “I wanted so badly to believe you.” “Sour Breath” has one of the more cutting opening lines on the record, beginning with the line, “I know you do better when you’re by yourself.” But the most harrowing song on the record is easily “Hurt Less.” Baker candidly describes her apathy towards life – “I used to not wear a seatbelt, ‘cause I said I didn’t care what happened,” the song starts. It’s a haunting and straightforward look at the reality of depression, harsh and unromanticized. Strings come in during the second verse, and the song immediately blooms into one of Baker’s best. It’s lush and it’s full and it’s absolutely beautiful. But the song’s swell coincides with one of the only glimmers of hope on the record; it comes in as Baker resolves to wear her seatbelt again, deciding she does care.
The addition of strings and the inclusion of more piano was a tremendous decision for Baker, as they add a whole new weight to her words. As always, she sounds fantastic – I could point out a few select vocal highlights, but I’d name a moment from every song. Suffice it to say, the end of “Claws in Your Back” has to be one of the most impressive moments of the year in terms of vocal performances. If you were drawn in by Sprained Ankle, prepared to be knocked on your ass by Turn Out the Lights. And if this will be your first experience with Julien Baker, buckle your seatbelt. She’s not slowing down anytime soon.