A door creaks shut. Footsteps. A chair is dragged along the floor. Then, she starts to play. 22-year old Tennessee songwriter Julien Baker’s latest album, Turn Out The Lights, opens with a piano, the same instrument with which she concluded her last album and solo debut, 2015’s Sprained Ankle. The closing track on that album, titled “Go Home”, ends with an extended piano reflection on the hymn, “In Christ Alone”, accompanied by serendipitous amplifier interference from church radio. It’s a heartwarming tune, and after that album’s emotional gauntlet, it seemed like an hopeful finish, the warming sun after rainfall.
However, this new opener on Turn Out The Lights, which came out in October, is a bit different. It’s in a minor key, accompanied by some plaintive strings. As the instrumental progresses, you might start to anticipate something even darker than her last project… but before you can get a clear view, it shifts into a major key and a twinkly, finger-picked electric guitar fades in, commencing the first proper song, “Appointments”. The guitar is Julien’s primary instrument, so its gentle reintroduction feels strangely triumphant. Finally, she starts to sing in that unmistakable voice of hers: sharp, crystal-clear, piercing through the moody musical fog like a lighthouse. Her voice often sounds like it might break, the starts and ends of words creaking as though emitting them physically pains her… but boy, does she know how to belt them out, too. Especially on this new album, we see Julien straining her voice to hit emotional climaxes. These are the familiar musical characters in a Julien Baker song, and for the most part, she doesn’t stray from this setup on Turn Out The Lights. However, what sticks out on this record, and what always sticks out in her work, shows in her lyrics.
If I can be frank for a moment: From one mentally-ill young queer person to another, Julien, I hope you’re okay. The first lines we hear her sing are, “I’m staying in tonight / I won’t stop you from leaving / I know I’m not what you wanted, am I?” The songs on Turn Out The Lights , without exception, deal with seriously dark subject matter: depression, drug abuse, broken relationships, suicidal thoughts, religious doubt, etc. For example, the title track concerns the all-too-familiar depressive thoughts that surface when you’re just trying to fall asleep. “Shadowboxing” presents the simplest, most perfect metaphor for mental illness that I’ve somehow never heard before, “Sour Breath” describes a deeply troubled relationship, and “Everything That Helps You Sleep” is Julien’s futile invocation to God for help. Now, none of this is uncharted lyrical territory for Julien. On Sprained Ankle, too, she tackled the same topics. Julien consistently draws from a powerful juxtaposition: anthemic sadness. Through some kind of emotional alchemy, she manages to transmute something heavy, personal, and paralyzing into something unifying, something supportive, something inspiring. It’s one of the most basic artistic impulses. When I hear Julien sing these refrains, I can picture all the kids in the front row belting out her own words back at her like it’s gospel: “The harder I swim, the faster I sink.” “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right, and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.” “When I turn out the lights, oh, there’s no one left between myself and me.” “Well, I heard there’s a fix for everything / Then why, then why, then why / Then why not me?”
In some contexts, Julien’s lyrics can seem basic. She hardly ever uses a complicated metaphor where a simple expression would suffice. As a result, her honesty can sound hackneyed if you’re feeling cynical. Now, I should note that my first experience with Turn Out The Lights was listening to the whole album while I sat alone in my car at 2:30 AM on a school night. I can’t advocate for that approach (get 8 hours of sleep, y’all), but I will say that, given my circumstances, I was completely ready for whatever Julien had to tell me. I lost track of the moments she verbalized my own neurotic, painful inner monologues, lending them a melody, rendering them beautiful and worthwhile. On another night, I might have rolled my eyes at a line like “I miss you the way that I miss nicotine,” but I think it’s important to get past that and see the big-picture emotional value of this album. Turn Out The Lights isn’t groundbreaking. There are more ambitious records, more depressing records, more emotionally “raw” records. Furthermore, it’s not much of a musical change of pace for Julien, delving further into the same sort of songwriting, the same lyrical content, the same emotional sphere as her previous effort. However, I want to emphasize one important difference between this album and Sprained Ankle . The last words Julien sang on Sprained Ankle were “God, I want to go home.” In the context of her lyrics, this is a suicide wish. “That song is about wanting to remove yourself from this plane of existence, because of overwhelming suffering,” Julien told Pitchfork in early November. It’s notable, then, that the last words Julien cries out on Turn Out The Lights are “I take it all back, I change my mind, I wanted to stay, I wanted to stay.” Fundamentally, I think that’s the crux of this album. Julien may be treading the same ground she’s tread before, but here she’s moving for a different purpose. While Sprained Ankle merely documented Julien’s despair, Turn Out The Lights thrives valiantly to fuel the last glimmering flames of survival. For that reason alone, it’s worth a listen. At the very least, it’s moving. And for you, perhaps, it may be necessary.