Turn Out the Lights
Music fans have been eagerly awaiting Julien Baker to release a new record ever since 2015’s Sprained Ankle became an underground hit, with the singer winning a legion of fans with her confessional lyrics, powerful vocals, and songwriting acumen. Baker signed to stalwart independent label Matador Records and made her way to the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis to record her second album: Turn Out the Lights. While Sprained Ankle mainly relied on jagged pieces of electric and acoustic guitars to provide the foundation for Baker’s impassioned vocals, Turn Out the Lights is a more piano-driven affair, with some added strings and woodwinds thrown into the mix thanks to Camille Faulkner and Cameron Boucher. While there are still plenty of winding guitar lines throughout the record, the piano takes a more dominant role, filling in the musical gaps. While Baker is no technical master, she has mastered the art of setting the mood, with each piano chord and guitar lick adding to the song. With the added production values afforded to her, Baker turns her songs on Turn Out the Lights into densely layered compositions.
Musically speaking, the record contains much of the same type of dark melancholy that has become Baker’s trademark, with mournful and sparse passages complementing her vocals. And make no mistake, Turn Out the Lights is an album built upon brutal soul searching and self-reflection, with Baker laying bare her anguish and failure, trying to find a glimmer of hope in the darkness.
Beginning with the instrumental “Over” and concluding with the wrenching “Claws in Your Back,” Turn Out the Lights lives up to its title, submerged in the dark realities of grappling with one’s inner demons and insecurities. Lyrically the album works through emotional turmoil and questions of faith, with some songs seemingly directed at God, with others dealing with jaded ex-lovers and failures. Baker’s greatest skill as a lyricist is her ability to eloquently and poignantly put her struggles out there in a way that they seem universal yet personal at the same time, always managing to tug at your heartstrings again and again.
It’s hard to pick a standout track as the album is best digested as a whole, but if one had to choose, “Claws in Your Back” would be it. One of the longest tracks on the record, the song is based on a sparse set of piano lines and an especially evocative vocal delivery from Baker. Lyrically the song is focused on dealing with one’s own inner demons and coming to grips with them and reality itself. As the song reaches its climax Baker comes to her own realization that “I’m better off learning/How to be/Living with demons I’ve/Mistaken for saints/If you keep it between us/I think they’re the same.” It is this type of hard-edged soul searching and rumination that makesTurn Out the Lights stand out from the rest of the year’s albums with its brilliant execution.
While those seeking more upbeat and happy music may find themselves uncomfortable with the confessional nature of Baker’s music, Turn Out the Lights is one of the most rewarding and gratifying records of 2017.
Julien Baker plays at The Fillmore on December 12, 2017. Buy Tickets.
Photo by Nolan Knight.