Julien Baker is a singer and songwriter from Tennessee who—with little more than a guitar or piano and voice—writes introspective songs that reflect on broad themes like grief, sadness, and faith and more specific topics like death, mental health, and God. Her 2015 debut album, Sprained Ankle, was written in a dorm room during her freshman year of college and gained her a wide following of people who found something of themselves in its songs. After two years of constant touring, Baker released her second album, Turn Out the Lights, last fall.
One of the earliest plot devices I can remember seeing is the dual image of the angel on one shoulder giving good advice that is immediately countered by a devil on the other shoulder. It’s a cute and comical, if unhelpful, image; rarely is the good and bad so cleanly split. Turn Out the Lights works against this type of thinking.
Throughout the album, Baker speaks frankly of her pain and anxieties just as frankly as she speaks of the ways in which she navigates them. But she doesn’t allow either side of the conversation its own exclusive space; there is no sad-song-chased-with-a-happy-song formula on the album. Instead, each of the eleven songs on Turn Out the Lights offer a full range of emotions.
Bright and clean-tone guitars create a reverent setting for Baker’s confessional passages, as if she’s speaking only to a close friend or to God. If these quiet and somber sections sound private or reserved, they don’t remain there long; almost every song on Turn Out the Lights builds to a place of complete release as massive guitars, strings, and, most powerfully, Baker’s voice reach their respective breaking points.
As Baker’s voice jumps up an octave and several decibels, what she’s singing doesn’t become any less personal or palatable in the way one might try to put on a smile before going outside on a bad day. What began as softly sung secrets become loudly sung secrets. Whether these frenzied heights are a form of catharsis, a surrender to, or a kind of pep talk is unclear and ultimately not the point. To the listener, and to Baker herself, they could feel like any or all of these things at different times.
Perhaps it is just where I am in my own life, but it seems to me that the biggest difference between adulthood and childhood or adolescence is that your happy and your sad sit closer together than they used to. It’s not that adulthood is happier or sadder, it’s just that both run concurrently.
As you and the people you’ve known and grown up with go off and carve a place in the world there is excitement and opportunity, but there is also distance and disappointment and sometimes even death. If we’re honest, sometimes our good and our bad are supposed to be expressed in the same sentence, like the man who approaches Jesus in the gospel of Mark to say, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Our angel and our devil sometimes share the same shoulder, talking over each other.
Turn Out the Lights is an album that reveals some of the ways both grief and joy have been living and breathing in your life and will probably make you hold a little closer the things that help make sense of both. (Matador Records)