A Case Study in Musical Progression: Julien Baker’s Turn Out the Lights

Turn Out the Lights is Julien Baker’s sophomore album, which followed up on her debut, Sprained Ankle’s stripped-down, singer/songwriter style, Turn Out the Lights was more expansive and incorporated varied instrumentation and arrangements.

Julien Baker burst on the scene in 2015 with her debut Sprained Ankle. Her honest and heart-on-her-sleeve songwriting, along with her amazing voice very much made the record stand out. I streamed it twice and pre-ordered the record right then and there.

So, when Baker’s second album, Turn Out the Lights, was released, I was very excited to hear it. The way Baker expanded on the themes touched on during Sprained Ankle, such as depression, addiction, and religion was impressive. The additional instrumentation of piano, organ, and strings showed a significant, and less stripped-down stylistic shift.

As for her origins, Julien Baker is a singer/songwriter from Memphis, Tennessee. She grew up in a religious family, who were devout Baptists. Growing up, Baker played music in her church, and she later discovered rock and pursued that avenue. Early on, Baker found herself interested in alternative and punk music, but later, getting into metal and hardcore bands, in High School, Baker was in a band called “The Star Killers.”

Eventually, Baker started writing songs while she attended university, and released the songs on Bandcamp, so her friends could hear them. From there, indie label, 6131, picked up the songs, and that collection of tracks before Baker’s debut record, Sprained Ankle. Sprained Ankle ended up on many end-of-the-year, best-of lists in 2015. After two years, Baker signed with Matador Records, and released a 7” single, and then her second album, Turn Out the Lights.

“Over” opens Turn Out the Lights, and is a piano instrumental, which is much different from Baker’s guitar-based debut record. The track fades brilliantly into “Appointments,” a song that sounds very much like a break-up song, “I know that I’m not the one you wanted, am I?” The song ends with the line, “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright, I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.”

Next, is the title track, “Turn Out the Lights.” The song references mental health with lines such as, “I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone, is it real or a dream, can you help me?” “Shadowboxing” follows and highlights a similar theme. One line that stands out, and refers to Baker’s upbringing is, “There’s a comfort in failure, singing too loud in a church, screaming my fears into speakers, ’til I collapse, or burst, whichever comes first.”

In all three of these songs, Baker sings the lyrics softly at first, and then, belts them out full-force in the latter parts of the songs, and in doing so, makes full use of her voice. “Sour Breath” opens with the line, “I know you do better when you’re by yourself, free from the weight of my dirt poor health.” The song also features my favorite line on the album, “The harder I swim, the faster I sink.”

“Televangelist” is another slower piano-based song, “Am I a masochist screaming televangelist clutching my crucifix of white noise and static,” she sings in this one. Great imagery in this, Baker’s lyrical style is so visual that she creates pictures in our collective brains with her words.

This all leads us to side two, which starts with, “Everything to Help You Sleep,” a beautiful piano ballad. The song also deals with emotional pain, which comes across as an appeal to god to make the pain go away, “Lord, Lord, Lord is there some way to make it stop?” “Happy to Be Here” follows in the same vein, with the lyric, “If I could become an electrician, I’d climb inside my ears, and re-arrange the wires in my brain.”

“Hurts Less” is another of my favorite tracks, lyrically. The song starts by stating, “I used to never wear a seatbelt, I said I didn’t care what happened,” but by the end, Baker sings, “This year, I started wearing seatbelts when I’m driving, because when I’m with you, I don’t have to think about myself, and it hurts less.” So, in a way, a little comfort there, at least. “Even” has my favorite chorus on the record, a very catchy refrain where Baker sings, “All you ever say is, ‘what’s the point,’ is there anybody there to help me now?”

Turn Out the Lights wraps up with “Claws in Your Back,” which gives the impression of Baker accepting things, and is a good note to end on, “I’m better at learning how to be living with demons mistaken for saints.” Aside from the guitar and piano, Baker plays on the record, there are also strings performed by Camille Faulkner, and clarinet and saxophone by Cameron Boucher.

Julien Baker followed up Turn Out the Lights with her third effort, Little Oblivians, in 2021, which is also a great record. I think Turn Out the Lights is an album of great lyrical and musical depth and is an important record for all to hear. It’s one of my all-time favorites, which I return to frequently.

Please enjoy the video below regarding Julien Baker’s sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights:

Be sure to check out the full archives of Surface Noise, by John Siden, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/surface-noise-archives/

About Post Author

John Siden

John Siden grew up surrounded by music from a young age. John’s father played guitar and performed in bars prior to John being born, and his mother also loved music. There was always music playing around the house or while driving in the car, mostly Country and Western on all forms, including vinyl, 8-track, and cassette. John’s first personal interest in music was piqued when he saw an ad for the Monkees TV show, featuring reruns, which as an eight-year-old, he had no idea these episodes were from the ’60s. This was John’s first musical obsession. Soon after, he was introduced to KISS and became a big fan. After the murder of John Lennon, the Beatles obsession began as John had not really heard much of their music up until then. It led to an education on the Beatles and the 60’s music as a whole. This occupied a lot of John’s teenage years. Following that, John got interested in all music especially Metal in the 80’s and Alternative/College type stuff later. Collecting records soon became his main hobby. In the ’90s when CDs took over, John still held onto his record collection, but just added a lot of CDs to the music collection, occasionally taking a special trip to record stores like Zulu records in Vancouver, which were hard to find at the time, and getting something special. John picked up the vinyl collecting bug again around 2013 when vinyl was making a comeback and a lot of bands were offering bundle deals on pre-orders where you would be able to get vinyl, CD, and a download code. Gradually more stores started opening up, and the addiction returned; vinyl collecting became a full-time hobby again for John. John’s interest in writing has been around for as long as Internet access has been a thing; he had a blog on Tumblr called My Diminishing Returns -John Writes about music, where he expressed his thoughts on music. Since 2019, John has had a YouTube channel called <a href="https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfhoLKqpF5p3FGLZgURyaww&quot; target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Surface Noise</a> where he discusses music mostly focused on vinyl. John works in the security industry and also is an avid reader and lover of film. He also plays guitar and sometimes accordion.
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