Baker is more than a melancholy stereotype.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Julien Baker is a very sad person. In reality, though, she’s just much braver than most. Faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles or immeasurable pain, the inclination is to run away from the tears, avoid them until the feeling passes. What Baker’s 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, and her sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights, illustrate is not only that she wrestles with those emotions in the moment, allowing her anger to build and release, but that the raw emotions on these albums reflect perhaps a healthier method of addressing pain. Because she packed only two shirts for her tour in support of Sprained Ankle, Baker’s “Sad songs make me feel better” T-shirt unintentionally became synonymous with her music. But Baker is more than a melancholy stereotype—she engages with the negativity in her world through beautifully simple tracks and unleashes that pain in rousing finales of bittersweet catharsis.
With Sprained Ankle still so recent, the shadow of Baker’s breakout debut hangs even heavier over Turn Out the Lights. That could lead to criticism of playing it safe and sticking too close to a proven formula. But this album sees Baker stay true to her solo sound—fragile vocals and heart-rending lyrics—while taking advantage of the switch from 6131 Records to Matador. Even though her arrangements remain sparse, Baker opts to enrich her rapturous moments with dramatic strings, much more piano, ambient additions and backing vocals; she’s joined by Camille Faulkner on strings for five tracks and layers her own vocals for even more shiver-inducing moments.
For the most part, however, Baker sticks to what she knows: pared down tracks that channel consuming anger, resignation, defiance and loss. While her music works from the assumption that, unfortunately, sadness is the natural state of things, these tracks reflect a self-preserving hope and self-aware acknowledgment of this tendency toward sadness. Take lead single “Appointments,” one of many about mental illness, where over a looped guitar and gentle keys Baker sighs “I think if I ruin this/ That I know I can live with it/ Nothing turns out how I pictured it/ …Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright/ And I know that it’s not/ But I have to believe that it is/ I have to believe that it is.”
Perhaps Baker’s philosophy is best illustrated through “Sour Breath” as she screams, “The harder I swim, the faster I sink,” a clear argument against running away from your problems. In this case, avoiding them only makes it worse. But few lines encapsulate her music like “Screaming my fears into speakers” in “Shadowboxing,” said in the calmest voice before Baker begins belting. Even though the emotions in her songs very frequently warrant shouting from Baker, she has processed them enough to maintain her calm and to present it in an unfettered state. That is, until these songs manifest their roiling emotions into an unleashed Baker. And while Sprained Ankle saw Baker scream out a lot of fears, Turn Out the Lights adds 11 powerful songs to that catalog of regrets and tears that, if you can believe it, dig deeper than her debut.
Where “Rejoice” was content to have Baker confess “But I think there’s a god and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain,” “Happy to Be Here” sees her actually complain: “And now the engineer is listening/ As I voice all my complaints…I was just wondering if there was any way that you made a mistake…Well I heard there’s a fix for everything/ Then why, then why, then why/ Then why not me?” And closer “Claws in Your Back” shows the progression from these self-conscious, despairing thoughts to acceptance: “I’m better off learning how to be/ Living with demons I’ve/ Mistaken for saints…I think I can love/ The sickness you made/ ‘Cause I take it all back, I change my mind/ I want it to stay,” the last line shouted for all to hear.
What distinguishes Julien Baker’s music is that fine line between learning to love yourself and glorifying your demons. While so many of her songs are about mental illness or substance abuse, these are obstacles to manage and overcome, just as Baker has done in her own life. The result is another album that speaks volumes about her self-reflection and sees her reach moments of sublime grace over and over.