On ‘Shadowboxing’, the fourth track from Julien Baker’s Turn Out the Lights, she sings: ‘There’s a comforting failure / Singing too loud in church / Screaming my fears into speakers / Until I collapse or burst’. These lines get right to the heart of what makes her second album so special – Turn Out the Lights understands the redemptive power of music, and comforting failure is exactly the feeling I get from it.
Across these eleven tracks, Julien airs out her fears and insecurities with intimate confidence, tackling the subject of depression and mental illness. She does so in a manner that is both sensitive and raw, like an open wound in the process of healing. The mood is sombre, but never without even the smallest glimmer of hope, and it is this that gives the album its cathartic power.
On ‘Hurt Less’, a simple and gorgeous piano ballad, Julien recounts how her depression became at one point so bad that she stopped wearing seatbelts while driving, and would fantasize about crashing through the windscreen: ‘I didn’t see the point / In trying to save myself’. But as the piano chords pick up power and a building violin brings the song to a climax, a shred of hope is found: ‘This year I started wearing safety belts / When I’m driving…’
It’s these small lyrical details that really set Turn Out the Lights apart. At no point does it fall back on tired metaphors and general gloom. At every step, Julien finds poetry in moments of day to day existence, like when a hole in her apartment’s drywall teaches her to ‘get used to the gaps’. Or how about this lovely line from ‘Appointments’: ‘Nothing turns out like I pictured it / Maybe the emptiness is just a lesson in canvasses’.
Musically, Turn Out the Lights is not a particularly adventurous record – Julien employs piano and guitar with heavy use of loop medals and reverb in most songs, some of which feature guest musicians on saxophone and strings. But the melodies are the sort that get immovably lodged in your brain, and Julien’s voice brings each one to life – even those that fixate heavily on death. Her singing is delicate but commanding, immediately grabbing the ear and positively pouring out emotion.
Turn Out the Lights is a painful listen at times, but always a rewarding one. It reminds us to never stop looking for that tiny glimmer of hope in the darkness, whether we find it in religion, love, or – in music.