By Clayton Ambrose
Artist: Julien Baker
Album: Turn Out the Lights
Release Date: October 27, 2017
The wars that rage within ourselves can often be the most devastating in the small sphere of our individual lives. The destruction that results from these battles is unexplainable to those who don’t understand them, making it difficult to rectify the physical and mental worlds. On her second album Turn Out the Lights, singer-songwriter Julien Baker attempts to paint a vivid and comprehensible picture of her own struggles, and the result is poignant and harrowing. The album feels like it was birthed organically out of Baker’s pain, like it manifested into a tangible existence as a pure representation of what it feels like to be broken down by the chemistry of your brain and to experience the difficulty of clawing your way back out of the hole.
The instrumentals of this album are fittingly sparse and spacious, matching up well with the somber subject matter of the lyrics. Most of the songs find Baker alone with a guitar or piano, no percussion to be found. Depending on your tastes, this can cause the album to lose replay value for some. This is not a catchy or upbeat musical work, because it really shouldn’t be. The slow and melancholy instrumentals put you into this space with Baker where you physically submerge into the darkness, only to have the quiet submission be broken by a sudden pained wail from your guest, like in the title track or “Happy To Be Here”. Baker often reaches these higher vocal notes through the album, which contrasts well with the mostly subdued music. The sounds rarely stray into anything resembling a bitter tone, however, giving the whole album an atmosphere of tragic beauty rather than something sinister or off-putting. It may even be one of the more accessible “sad” albums I’ve ever heard because of its relative smoothness.
The real, potent impact of the album comes with the combination of the music with the lyrics. The lyrical content of Turn Out the Lights is devastating, intense, and unfathomably real. The album seeks to describe the indescribable, to put a pin in the invisible mechanisms whose gears constantly rattle and grind within the hearts of those like Baker and many others who feel their struggle is impossible to communicate. In “Shadowboxing”, Baker compares her internal struggle to the practice of sparring with an invisible opponent and how it looks like a process of self-defeat rather than a battle with the antagonistic behaviors of the depressed mind. She sings, “When you watch me throwing punches at the devil/It just looks like I’m fighting with me”, desperately trying to reason that things really aren’t as easy to understand as they may seem, because they rarely ever are.
We see (or hear, rather) the toll this inner calamity takes on the outer world in songs like “Sour Breath”, where Baker sees her failing relationship through the lens of self-deprecation, finally concluding to her significant other that “you’re everything I want and I’m all you dread”. However, the album does end on a slightly elevated note with “Claws In Your Back”, which finds Baker concluding with “I think I can love/The sickness you’ve made” and saying that “I wanted to stay”, which optimistically finishes out this shared journey of self-betterment.
What I find most engaging in the lyrics of this album, however, is how this unseen evil relates to her relationship with God. The Christian connection with God exists in the same sphere as one’s connection with themselves, which is one of the prevailing spaces that the album takes place in. When external forces are ineffectual in healing her ailments, she turns inward and upward to heaven but finds more complications. In “Everything That Helps You Sleep At Night”, Baker finds herself confronting the very Catholic concept of finding peace within your good works on this Earth. She directly addresses God, pleading “Lord, Lord, Lord, it there some way to make it stop?/’Cause nothing that I do has ever helped to turn it off”. This questioning turns to self-loathing and a sense of being undeserving of salvation on “Televangelist”, where she claims that all her “prayers are just apologies”, and on “Happy To Be Here”, where she describes God’s grace as “humiliating” in her current predicament.
As a Christian myself I find it difficult to find an album that deals with these problems from a believer’s perspective that doesn’t stray away from the difficulties of believing in difficult times. Sometimes you have trouble with your faith, and the contradicting ideas of God healing all wounds and your wounds not being currently healed is a hard matter to parse. I was elated to hear an artist touch on these feelings in a way that I truly resonated with. Yet, the whole album is not absorbed within this subject. Turn Out the Lights is a work for anyone who has felt dejected, lost, or depressed. Baker’s reflections of this album go so far inward that they turn outward, touching on such a specific place that is not always relatable, but when it is, hits hard. If you’ve ever been in a similar position as Baker, then this album may be difficult for you to get through, but just like she needed to make it, you might need to hear it.