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

All images courtesy of Julien Baker Facebook (official)

All images courtesy of Julien Baker Facebook (official)

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.

All images courtesy of Julien Baker Facebook (official)

“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.

All images courtesy of Julien Baker Facebook (official)

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

Video credit: John Siden/Surface Noise

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

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