Looking back on 2017, there is already quite a few indie records being remembered fondly. In the middle of that cluster is the sophomore effort from Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights, an album that originally slipped through the cracks of my listening rotation. On her latest project, the Tennessee singer-songwriter showcases a promising pen, accompanied by stripped back, slowcore instrumentation that allows her own emotional trauma to take center stage.
Baker’s music thrives off relatability and dark emotional appeal. With her tender vocal delivery and depressing lyrical tone, it’s no wonder so she has acquired so many young fans in the time since the albums release. Her ability to connect and resonate with angst-filled millenials is not an act; the darkness in Julien’s artistic output is a genuine result of her own struggles and desires. “Why not me,” she repeats on “Happy to Be Here,” referencing her difficulty with overcoming personal troubles. Her cries of self-doubt can even make pain sound inviting, enough to where you want to come in to each song and cope with her.
Typically centered around either a piano or a soft electric guitar, Baker’s bleak ballads consistently take shape into beautifully arranged, slow-building compositions. Both “Appointments” and “Turn Out the Lights” show her ability to exude patience in her singing, making each lyric seem drawn out, heavy and impactful. This trick proves to be the main formula throughout the course of the record, repeated over and over again, occasionally losing its touch, but mostly fulfilling the album’s morbid thesis.
Turn Out the Lights is very much a singular mood, stuck in a space of sorrow and dejection. The tone of the record hardly shifts from its slow-paced crawl. “Shadowboxing,” a windy guitar ballad about fighting inner demons, is another display of Julien’s best songwriting skill: expressing her emotional distress in a gentle yet powerful way. The track also succeeds thanks to her passionate vocal performance. “Televangelist,” on the other hand, is one a few songs that fall flat in delivering blows of this magnitude. The more lackluster tracks remain consistent with the tempo and tone of the record, but they fail to be the sizable gut punch that other songs are, such as the pretty closing number, “Claws in Your Back.”
It’s easy to pin this album down as being one dimensional, but I believe that is largely in part due to the mental and physical state of Julien Baker at the time of its creation. Turn Out the Lights is as sincere of an indie folk album as there was in 2017 and what it lacks in diversity, it makes up for in quality. One can only hope that this extreme catharsis was simultaneously a big healing step for Julien in her battles with love, addiction and depression. Her music strikes a deep, emotional chord with listeners in a way that many artists can only hope to do.