There aren’t that many artists that can kick you in the shins emotionally quite the same way that Julien Baker does on her sophomore album Turn Out the Lights. That is to say that these are songs that can make you cry the first time you hear them. If you’re having a tough time in this thing called life, bring a box of tissues to your drunk/hungover/lonesome listening party of this album. From the door creak that opens the album to the final fading notes on the piano, Baker will take you through pain, numbness, uplift, and catharsis.
The barebones nature of this album is what makes the emotive vocals pop. There’s little else besides guitar, piano, and strings, and these songs are still massive. Baker’s voice carries above all else. Whether she’s singing softly sounding like she’s on the verge of tears, belting like an indie diva, or, occasionally, screaming, the instrumentation never takes away from her vocals and lyrics. The music still swells with concert hall grandeur to match her vocals, and these sound like Death Cab for Cutie layered instrumentals, but the absence of percussion really makes these songs all the more personal.
At its heart, Turn Out the Lights is an album about a person trying to force herself to have hope, even though she cannot. This is most obvious on “Appointments,” when Baker sings, “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright/And I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.” Baker sings that line twice. The first time it’s sweet and soft, but when it comes around again, she’s belting like everything in her life is falling apart and running through her fingertips. “Even” is about coming to terms with your own demons, where you have an awful belief about yourself, but you’re still trying to be a better person. “Televangelist” explores Baker’s experience as a queer Christian, while also exploring themes of depression: “Do I turn into light if I burn alive?” Two of the more hopeful songs come in the middle: “Happy to Be Here” and “Hurt Less.” The former is about treatment for drug abuse and trying to make oneself better, but the latter explores the help in companionship, whether from a lover or a friend: “As long as you’re not tired yet, of talking, it helps to make it hurt less.”
Still, Baker’s most moving moments are reflected in her loudest, most heart-wrenching moments. In the title track, Baker alludes to suicidal thoughts and fighting depression, and it explodes into a triumphant chorus. The other explosive moment comes in “Sour Breath.” Baker concludes the song with a crescendo of “The harder I swim, the faster I sink” culminating in the instruments cutting out and Baker screaming it one last time, and it makes you feel a lot of things.
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