Turn Out the Lights begins with an open door and ends with a moment of clarity, but the eleven songs in between will test you. 21-year-old Julien Baker’s slowcore recalls genre superstars like Low and Carissa’s Wierd, but her brand of existential sadness is all her own: a distinctly twentysomething mix of longing and self-doubt that’s as hard to look directly at as it is to ignore. It’s uncomfortably close in the way that a diary entry or a late-night party overshare might be, but it’s hardly a turnoff. Turn Out the Lights is so raw and bare bones that it’s impossible not to relate to: look no further than lines like “Why is it easy for everyone else?” or “The harder I swim the faster I sink.”
Expanding on the subtle sound of her self-produced debut Sprained Ankle, Turn Out the Lights sees Baker grow as a producer and songwriter, experimenting with instrumental crescendos on tracks like “Turn Out the Lights” and warbling strings on “Everything That Helps You Sleep.” It’s a natural progression that feels earned by Baker’s broader lyrical themes, which include references to her personal and romantic failings as well as her struggle with faith. Turn Out the Lights feels like the second date, with Baker more comfortable filling in blanks about her life and struggles that seemed to soon to share on her debut.
Throughout the album, it’s Baker’s one liners that stand out, vulnerable and immediately recognizable to anyone who’s ever struggled with depression, a bad relationship, or just the right amount of existential dread. Those who aren’t in the middle of an episode might find some of these utterances a little maudlin, like the extended metaphor of “Happy to Be Here” that sees Baker imagining herself rewiring her brain to become a better her — one who goes to church on Sunday and lives life like everybody else. Samuel Beckett once wrote that there’s “nothing funnier than unhappiness,” and it’s a fact not lost on Baker, whose blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sense of humour often helps the medicine go down.
If there’s one thing that keeps Turn Out the Lights from being a home run, it’s a sense of exhaustion that comes around track eight or nine, where listeners might feel that Baker is starting to run around in circles: each song seems to bleed into the next, with lyrical themes being revisited and rebuilt to the point of becoming tired. The album’s musical cohesion only adds to this, as the songs start to sound the same and coalesce into one larger musical motif. The effect is weakened on subsequent listens, as each track begins to bloom into its own personal statement, but those who aren’t accustomed to Baker’s touch might find the album more than a little repetitive.
Still, from the right angle, Turn Out the Lights is a big step forward for Baker, who’s only solidifying her position as one of music’s foremost confessional singers alongside contemporaries like Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield and Sharon Van Etten. Turn Out the Lights is a difficult listen, but often a cathartic one, one that not only teaches you more about Baker but might also cause you to notice something new about yourself.
Words by Max James Hill