By Alexander Eubanks
Ever since her debut album “Sprained Ankle,” Julien Baker has quickly risen to the top of the indie rock scene and has become a rare crossover hit that landed with both fans, critics and fellow musicians alike.
While she has been interviewed and has received high praise by indie publications, like Under the Radar, her praises have been sung just as high by Pitchfork and the Rolling Stone as well as her most devoted fans.
She has a strong fan base among contemporaries like emo pioneers Brand New, who covered one of her songs live; and Paramore, who had Baker open for them in Montana this year.
Her sophomore album “Turn Out the Lights” was released Friday with very high expectations from both fans and legendary Matador Records, which recently signed her, and it’s safe to say she surpassed all expectations.
The opening track is an extremely well layered instrumental that flows seamlessly into “Appointments,” the lead single of the album. “Appointments” and the following track “Turn Out the Lights,” are powerful emotional ballads.
“Appointments” takes the listener on a trail of Baker fighting with a partner who begs her to get help. While coming to terms with their failing relationship and preparing to cope with the loss of it. “Turn Out the Lights” depicts Baker’s isolation, feelings of being lost and facing her demons as she spends her night alone.
The fifth track “Sour Breath,” is one of the darkest songs on the album. Baker explains the struggle she tackles when she becomes trapped in a one-sided relationship. Where she faces an alcoholic who pays little mind to the demons Baker is trying to fight off.
With the lyrics “I know you do better when you’re by yourself free from the weight of my dirt-poor self” and “Kiss me goodnight with your sour breath, breaks on my face like a wave of emptiness, every time I talk just taste regret, you’re everything I want and I’m all you dread” it’s impossible not to feel the emotional gut punch as she relinquishes her emotion into her music.
Baker keeps this up into the sixth and seventh tracks as she attempts to deal with her issues through isolation and reflection and allowing her faith to guide her. At the start of the eighth track Julien begins changing the tone of the album and moves toward self-repair instead of self-pity.
“Happy to Be Here,” heartbreakingly lays out the ideal person Julien wishes to become and the average life she wishes to live. Despite her wishful thinking, she soon turns back to her true self as she sings “I miss you the way I miss nicotine, if it makes me feel better how bad can it be” as she begins to try and refocus on the person she loves.
Toward the end of “Happy to Be Here” Baker takes an extremely dark approach to lighten the mood–something only she could pull off. She details going to an AA meeting on April Fool’s Day and being unhappy by the events. She doesn’t want to be there until she finally brings herself to accept that it’s time to take control of her life.
“Hurt Less” follows a similar structure with Baker beginning the song at another low point and then slowly beginning to work through her thoughts by talking to someone close to her to break herself out of isolation.
She notes in the beginning of the song that she never wore a seatbelt because she simply didn’t care, but later in the song she sings that she started wearing her seatbelt again because she’s found someone she loves. Baker doesn’t want her new partner to worry about her anymore. This moment is arguably one of the most moving moments on the album.
The final two tracks are cathartic as Baker focuses on coming to terms with her demons and starting to accept their existence by incorporating them into her life.
In “Claws on Your Back” Baker explains her battle with self-harm before her acknowledging that she’s come to terms with her demons. She sings “I’m better off learning how to be living with demons I’ve mistaken for saints. If you keep it between us I think they’re the same” which is an extremely powerful line.
When comparing “Turn Off the Lights” to “Sprained Ankle” it’s easy to notice the improved production. The minimalistic instrumentals on Baker’s debut album are traded for background vocals and a more sophisticated, layered tracks.
While these changes might be a little jarring at first, they become a welcomed feature as the album continues. The beats become more and more tailored to her artistry, amplifying her talent.
Baker improves lyrically on her sophomore album as she becomes more detailed and creative. “Turn Out the Lights” is arguably one of the albums of the year that should be a must-listen for any music fan.
The Crow’s Nest rates albums between one and five stars, with five stars being the highest possible score.
Header photo courtesy of Matador Records