If you frequent this website, you’re aware of our approach to music criticism. We view it as more of a dialogue – toeing the line between flag-waving fandom and unbiased, nuanced observation. Call it critique with a heart. This review will not abide by this principle. It, in fact, cannot.
I make this disclaimer because Julien Baker’s new album Turn Out the Lights is deeply meaningful to me. Maybe more so than any recent release I can remember. Over the next 900 words, I’m going to tell you why.
Like many others, I discovered Baker’s debut, Sprained Ankle via word of mouth. That album became a refuge of sorts. When hearing Baker’s fragile voice atop her guitar, it’s hard not to visualize her pain. Those songs are poignant in their specificity, yet universal enough to find your own story within. So often in life, we feel like we have to fight our battles alone. Sprained Ankle became a safe place to process my own demons and feel solace with someone in the midst of their own fight.
I was not alone in my experience. Since that release, Baker’s profile has risen, and thus, so did the anticipation for her follow up. Turn Out the Lights expands on Sprained Ankle’s outlines in nearly every way. No longer alone with her guitar, Turn Out the Lights finds new and interesting arrangements, including piano and strings. These new elements open doors for Baker to explore painful themes in a way that feels as authentic as anything you’re likely to hear this year.
Turn Out the Lights lives in the moments right after the ugly cry, as you gather yourself and decide whether to give up or push onward. It is unapologetic in its honesty – a trait that will hit close to home for many, and potentially alarm some others. No matter. Turn Out the Lights may not be for everyone, but for those willing to journey along through the mire with Baker, the discomfort is worth it.
I knew from the moment I heard lead single “Appointments” that this release would be more than just another album to me. This summer, my therapist moved away. If you’ve ever been through therapy, you know how upended your whole becomes as you process the idea of starting from scratch with someone new. Two months into my refusal to try again, Baker’s line of, “Suggest that I talk to somebody again / That knows how to help me get better / Until then I should just try not to miss any more appointments” hit home in a very real way.
I’d venture to say that anyone who has battled with depression would find a multitude of moments like these on Turn Out the Lights. Not to mention those who struggle with addiction, those who question their faith, those living in the aftermath of a failed relationship, or just about anyone working through pain in their lives. Baker’s knack for translating her trials into songs that feel so universal is nearly unmatched.
Moments that force my own deep personal reflection come on tracks like “Happy to Be Here” as Baker belts, “Well I heard there’s a fix for everything / Then why, then why, then why / Then why not me?” or on “Shadowboxing” when she sings, “You can’t even imagine how badly it hurts just to think sometimes”. These moments of painful solidarity bring the slightest hint of hope. Hope that we’re not alone in this struggle and that someone else is there. Baker tugs at this notion on “Hurt Less” with the closing lines, “As long as you’re not tired yet of talking / It helps to make it hurt less”.
I often find it hard to share the deepness of my struggle with depression. In my attempts to verbalize my thoughts, I can pass that pain along to a loved one unwittingly. It’s difficult to talk about the darkness without casting it onto someone else, which is why those fleeting moments when we can safely confide are so precious. It’s also why the album’s closer, “Claws in Your Back”, might be the most painful, personal and powerful song I’ve ever heard.
It’s painful because it fearlessly tackles thoughts of suicide and the terror of sharing those thoughts out loud. “Pump the vitals out of my wrist / ‘Cause I’m conducting an experiment on how it feels to die / Or stay alive”, Baker’s broken voice rattles out atop her haunting piano. It’s personal because it captures the private struggle of depression, with Baker singing, “So try to stay calm, ‘cause nobody knows / The violent partner you carry around / With claws in your back, ripping your clothes / And listing your failures out loud”.
But more than anything, it’s powerful because, like everyone who fights this battle, Baker must choose to live with “the sickness you made”, declaring on the album’s final, chill-inducing lines, “I take it all back / I changed my mind / I wanted to stay”. The beauty of her cries vocalize the will it takes to fight for another day. It’s the kind of beautiful that only music can convey. And it’s the reason we listen. It’s the reason I write. It’s the reason this website exists.
I could tell you about the songwriting growth exhibited by Baker on Turn Out the Lights, or the powerful production and purposeful arrangements that make it one of the year’s best albums. But ultimately, I want to tell you to find the music that speaks your language, shares your fears and speaks to your soul. Cling to it and listen to it as often as you can. Because these moments are the reason we listen at all. Maybe Turn Out the Lights is that for you, as it is for me. But if not, keep listening, keep searching and keep fighting. You don’t have to do it alone.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.