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Julien Baker bottles lighting again with ‘Turn Out the Lights’

(Julien Baker/ Facebook)

Julien Baker’s sophomore album “Turn Out the Lights” is an emotional, intimate collection of music that builds upon her celebrated debut from 2015. Baker was picked up by Matador Records for “Turn Out the Lights,” and the more involved production has allowed her to find a stronger creative vision without losing what made her debut, “Sprained Ankle,” successful.

Baker, a singer-songwriter from Memphis, Tennessee worked with Sorority Noise’s Cameron Boucher on “Turn Out the Lights.” Her shaky voice, plucky guitar and constrained piano embrace the frailty of life while not shying away from the fears of a young 20-something in this day-and-age. Depression, mental health, love, loss, faith, understanding and confusion permeate the 11-song album from the first chords to the last strained lines on “Claws in Your Back.”

“Over” and “Appointments” start the album, with “Over” building from the sounds of someone closing the door behind them into a track that colors much of the album. “Appointments” sees Baker utilizing her voice, haunting backing vocals and a calmly building piano to explore a relationship falling apart, implied to be due to mental health issues.

“Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right / and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is,” describes a thematic motif that continues throughout the album. These first two tracks signify a shift from Baker’s first album, with greater instrumentation and the inclusion of string instruments such as violin or cello to bolster her vocals.

Many of Baker’s tracks rely on continuously layering instruments and vocals to build emotional tension. The technique is effective, as title track “Turn Out the Lights” showcases with an explosion sound in the last chorus which trickles off into nothing moments later. Another exploration of Baker’s mental health, she sings, “so why is it easy for everyone else? / I’m not always like this / there’s always tomorrow I guess.” Baker hits hard on the loss of one’s sense of self to mental illnesses.

“Shadowboxing” utilizes the idea of literal shadowboxing, where boxers practice technique without an opponent, to describe her internal conflicts. The track highlights Baker’s ability to pull intense emotion out of sparse instrumentation, with a slow laborious guitar only being given moments of accompaniment from a few key-presses on a piano. “Shadowboxing”  also drives home Baker’s vocal chops, with her screaming high notes through a shaking, pained voice.

Hurt Less” is another exceptional track from the album. The piano-backed lyrics showcase Baker’s struggle with depression and her inability to care for her own safety. It characterizes much of the album through its intimate, painful vocals, carrying bleak lyrics that explore Baker’s grappling with a multitude of issues all at once. It ends hopeful, with Baker finding someone to care about, which in turn helps her care for herself. Hurt Less” also relies on a harmony from a masculine voice, furthering the feeling of others being there that care.

Each song on the album relies on the same building blocks which, despite lyrical and tempo shifts, allows the album to blend together. While not necessarily a bad thing, it can be difficult to easily differentiate the songs from one another. That being said, no song overstays its welcome as they each weave mounting instrumentation with Baker’s voice to craft compelling songs. Highlights from the album are “Shadowboxing,” “Happy to Be Here,” and “Claws in Your Back.”

“Turn Out the Lights” is a lovely, weighty album that builds well on Julien Baker’s previous release. While it retreads many of the same themes, the heightened production values and dense layering of instruments and vocals on several songs allow it to stand as a maturation of Baker as an artist.

The album is moving, deeply intimate and can be difficult for others dealing with issues Baker touches upon. It can also be cathartic, releasing tension and drawing listeners to share in Baker’s intimate struggles. Baker’s songwriting has been toned and focused, allowing her to explore themes without becoming overbearing.

No artist, and no person, lives without skeletons in their closet. Baker embraces these skeletons through her music, and shares them with the world. Julien Baker has crafted a beautiful and sorrowful album with “Turn Out the Lights” that is a sincere exploration of herself.

 

Matt Leonard can be reached at mcleonard@umass.edu.

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