Review: Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights

Give Baker the basics and some space, and she’ll make magic.
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Julien Baker

When Julien Baker sings, rooms go quiet. Floating above simple compositions, her voice is raw, emotive, sometimes shaky but always strong. It’s vibrant and authentic, and wise beyond its years. It’s one of the most important young voices in music today.

In some ways, Baker is just the latest in a long line of emotional singer-songwriters concerned with sadness and substance abuse. She garners understandable comparisons to Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, who covered her earlier this year, and Conor Oberst. But while Baker is heavily influenced by early 2000s emo, she retains a DIY punk aesthetic and traces of gospel. Moreover, her music’s defining quality is an elegant but radical simplicity. Her debut record, Sprained Ankle, was built from little more than guitar and piano. Turn Out the Lights, her new album and her first on Matador, has upped the production value and added a few instruments and players (including contributions from Sorority Noise’s Cameron Boucher), but the fundamental formula remains the same. Give Baker the basics and some space, and she’ll make magic.

Space is a key part of that equation. There’s an emptiness lingering behind many of Baker’s songs, the sense that each one is carefully built up from nothing. As she sings on lead single “Appointments”, “Maybe the emptiness is just a lesson in canvases.” That song, a gentle series of guitar loops that slowly crescendo, is textbook Baker. Elsewhere, she takes advantages of the new resources available to her. The standout track “Sour Breath”, about a lover with a substance problem, features studio layering and tasteful vocal filtering. It’s the best example of Baker’s burgeoning musical maturity.

The production is secondary, though, next to Baker’s lyricism, which is physical and direct. She has a proclivity for metaphors of the body: sprained ankles, amputations, “Claws in Your Back”, “entry wounds and puncture marks.” She treats mental illness as injury, which makes it seem immediate, tangible, and, most importantly, subject to healing. Because these are songs intended to heal. Though Baker often belts her lyrics from rock bottom, there’s a deep, insurmountable hope to each one. Consider when, on “Happy to Be Here”, she sings “Well I heard there’s a fix for everything… Then why not me?” Baker fills the line with despair and optimism in equal parts — that doubled sentiment is the key to her music’s emotional resonance.

Hope for Baker is real, and its name is God. As a queer southern Christian, Baker manages to navigate her identity and values with a sense of clarity rare in people twice her age. Her music isn’t explicitly Christian; in some ways it’s barely even religious. Nonetheless, God and faith have a powerful presence in all of her songs. “Happy to Be Here”, with references to church and “humiliating grace” is the most openly religious song on the record, but nearly every song includes some subtle address to a higher power. For some, Baker’s music can be a vital third rail for spiritual music, songs that speak to the power of faith without evangelizing. Though not for everyone, this is the kind of music that saves lives.

Admittedly, part of the power of Baker’s music is linked to the personality of the woman behind it. When performing, Baker peppers her sad songs to God with charming, self-deprecating humor. Her interviews are humble, erudite, and insightful. Hell, when she talked to Stereogum, she bought a homeless guy a slice of pizza. It’s damn near impossible not to like Julien Baker. This lends her music a strength that exists outside the songs themselves. Some could fault that quality, but others will find that it’s simply icing on the cake.

Turn Out the Lights is an exciting sophomore effort from an even more exciting artist. While the album isn’t a tremendous leap forward from Sprained Ankle, Baker emerges with her vision and voice more fully formed. Wherever she goes from here, the world will be waiting to meet her. B PLUS