Album Review: Julien Baker – “Turn Out the Lights”

Memphis singer-songwriter Julien Baker, at just 21 years old, has already accomplished more in just a couple of years than what many artists spend their entire lives striving to achieve. After the release of 2015’s Sprained Ankle, one of the year’s most acclaimed albums, not just by a new artist, but in music in general, Baker quickly found commendation and success in the hearts of fans across the industry.

Virtually every outlet has sung her praises for her material – not just for her eloquently vulnerable work on Sprained Ankle, but also for how well she’s able to transfer the same atmosphere to her live show. Opening for everyone from Ben Folds to The Decemberists last and this year, as well as signing to new label Matador Records (from 6131), it seems as now all eyes are on Baker, eager to see what her next move musically would be.

Would she continue to take a progressively deeper dive into emotional turmoil? Would she continue pursuing a minimalistic approach to her music, or would she venture out into uncharted territory? And how will she continue to branch off of the already ambitious, admirably authentic songwriting found on her debut? Basically – with such an impressive debut record under her belt, where does she go from here?

Well, with the slam of a screen door and patter of a few footsteps not far behind, Baker begins her descent into Turn Out the Lights – a grandiosely constructed, yet still hauntingly intimate, sophomore effort, undoubtedly showcasing the best of what Baker has to offer, as well as a declarative statement of what untapped potential still awaits.

Opener “Over” sets the aforementioned mood, as the hum of approaching violin strings can be heard over dissonant piano chords, immediately setting the tone, and carrying over into lead single “Appointments.” The repetition of a warm, soft-spoken guitar carries into the track’s understated melody and lyrical themes of facing the inevitability of things not getting better, despite wanting to keep an optimistic mindset. From there on out, the record only continues to delve into the expansive vision and growth Baker sets out to explore on Turn Out the Lights.

Facing traumas, uncertainties, and the crushing reality of life around her, are common themes found all throughout Turn Out the Lights, and Baker is able to transcend cliché and bullshit when constructing them by not only being honest, but relaying her feelings in a relatable, accessible way – a unique and powerful tool that she uses frequently, and impeccably.

Whether she’s repeating for emphasis the realization of a relationship gone awry on “Sour Breath” (“The harder I swim, the faster I sink”), or building off the tenderness of Sprained Ankle by expanding her sound through the exploration of many piano-laden avenues (most successfully on “Shadowboxing” and “Televangeist,”) Baker is able to meet the worst of the world head-on, and still find a unique way of addressing them in a way that feels all her own.

It’s also worth mentioning that the album sounds immaculate. Mixed with a steady hand by Craig Silvey (whose work with everyone from The National to Arcade Fire speaks for itself), the record’s sparse production perfectly suits Baker’s style of song construction while still giving the material the support it needs to leave a lasting impact. Songs transition incredibly smoothly from one to the next, and seamlessly create a cohesive product, without having to sacrifice Baker’s keen eye for storytelling or minimalistic flair.

Any minor gripes that exist on Turn Out the Lights are just those – they’re minor. Aside from some of the tracks sounding a little too indistinct at times (though I’m sure with repeat listens, the individual pieces will build distinction based on their lyrical content over the way they sound), and a little more musical variety, especially in the middle, would have been appreciated, the record’s output, as-is, is still rather impressive.

Besides, the repetition of style in the middle only makes the unexpected moments near the end of the record (the mid-tempo “Even” and scorching finale “Claws in Your Back”) all the more exciting and rewarding to get to. They’ll be moments I’ll continue to look forward to over the coming weeks and months I return to this album – through the best and worst of times, alike.

Turn Out the Lights is the kind of record that turns casual fans into musical soulmates – a record that is so finely tuned and aware of its strengths that it’ll make you jealous you don’t have the same chops as its creator. Baker seamlessly finds a way to work through the problems she’s firmly rooted in, and digs herself out using every weapon of creative means at her disposal for the greater good.

If you somehow slept on Baker’s triumphant debut album two years ago, wake yourself up, because albums of such a personal and unique quality don’t come around so often twice. For those of you that came into Baker through Sprained Ankle and are looking for a promising next step, you’ll find that and even more on Turn Out the Lights.

If 2016 was the year that Baker gained recognition, 2017 is undoubtedly the year she’ll cement her footing as one of the industry’s great up-and-comers.

-l

  1. Over
  2. Appointments
  3. Turn Out the Lights
  4. Shadowboxing
  5. Sour Breath
  6. Televangelist
  7. Everything That Helps You
  8. Happy to Be Here
  9. Hurt Less
  10. Even
  11. Claws in Your Back

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