Julien Baker’s New Album Tackles Depression, Religion and Love

"Turn Out the Lights" released October 27, 2017. Photo Courtesy Matador Records

Levi Jiorle

Assistant Managing Editor

There is the sound of a door opening and closing. Then someone walks, and there appears to be keys jingling and other ruffled noises that are difficult to discern. A piano and a violin breaks this commotion apart and brings us into the beginning of her sophomore release, “Turn Out the Lights.”

Tennessee native Julien Baker has been gaining notoriety for her somber, honest songs since her debut album “Sprained Ankle.” She is the epitome of a singer/songwriter, often relying solely on her voice and either just a guitar or piano for her arrangements.

There are, however, moments when her music displays depth and ambiance.

“Turn Out the Lights” takes all of Baker’s qualities from her first release and intensifies them to a dramatic effect. The music is sparse, the lyrics are heart-wrenching, and it is constantly impressive that someone at the mere age of 22 is making music to such a serious degree.

Baker’s lyrics approach hard subjects such as substance abuse, depression, struggles with religious faith and relationships with loved ones. With a careless writer, these topics can come off as overly-sentimental, but Baker approaches her lyrics with an honesty that avoids a woe-is-me attitude. Being that she was an English major before making music a full-time gig, it is no surprise that her lyrics are stamped with a literary quality.

The title track off the album tackles the subject of depression quite fearlessly.

When Baker sings, “There’s a hole in the drywall still not fixed. I just haven’t gotten around to it, and besides, I’m starting to get used to the gaps,” she uses metaphor to show how someone could get used to the fog of depression. She then describes how solitude can be used as a tool to approach the problems someone may have in life.

The title of the album comes from these lyrics: “but when I turn out the lights, there’s no one left between myself and me.”

Besides her lyrics, Baker uses sparse instrumentation to help highlight her vocals. Her first album was much more guitar-oriented, often showing signs of Elliott Smith.

“Turn Out the Lights” has much more piano than it does guitar, though, and brings in other instrumentation such as classical string and woodwind instruments. Baker has a sweet, powerful voice that soars over the music. While this is something to cherish, it can create some problems with variety. When a singer takes the time to reach high volumes, that takes a lot of energy to do.

This can make it hard to focus on the instrumentation when the vocals come to such a forefront.

Baker’s music requires patience. If someone goes into this sophomore release and expects to be blown away by flashy guitar licks, they will be sorely disappointed. The music often takes a linear path line, and since the vocals and lyrics always take the lead, the instrumentation serves as only the foundation; some of Baker’s songs fall into a habit of predictability. This was somewhat surprising to find out, because her first release did have moments where the guitar took the lead.

The title track off her first album has a lot of depth with the guitar work. She uses harmonics to create a nice atmosphere, and uses layers of reverb and high-string leads to create a dense sound.

“Turn Out the Lights” is just overall more conservative with the instrumentation. Baker may need to add a full band one day to keep her forthcoming albums fresh. Her voice evokes such an honest quality. It’s almost as if she is telling a story to her listeners.

The recording quality of “Turn Out the Lights” is more polished than her previous album. It would have been nice to hear the vocals left at a rawer quality for these songs.

The reason why “Sprained Ankle” and albums like “Either/Or” from Elliott Smith leave such a lasting impression is because of the genuine representation. Rather than sounding like it was recorded at a high-end studio, it’s as if the musicians are performing at an intimate cafe, or some other small-sized gig.

Overall, “Turn Out the Lights” is a significant release that deserves all the attention it has gained so far. Baker writes songs that help people feel less alone, and this may be the most important aspect of her cathartic music.

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