“Turn Out the Lights”
Julien Baker is a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Tennessee whose 2015 solo debut, “Sprained Ankle,” was a rough-hewn but promising album with gentle, vulnerable melodies that cloaked some often-harrowing lyrics (the title track’s opening line: “Wish I could write songs about anything but death.”) Intentionally spare and raw, the album is as uplifting as it is intense, with her soaring voice and melodies suddenly bursting open like sunlight through clouds, yet the stark sonic setting and its often-bruising subject matter (substance abuse, isolation, heavy emotions) made it rarely an easy ride.
And while much of the same can be said of her new album “Turn Out the Lights” — hushed vocals, simple chords paired with simple yet indelible melodies — it’s a far more fully realized effort, a giant leap beyond her debut in terms of songcraft and production.
Yet while the arrangements are much more full, it’s still a quiet and at times stark album. The songs are slow and stately, built around simple but embellished piano or guitar chords, overlaid with multitracked, almost choral vocals, building gradually until she leaps into her lofty upper range and the songs burst open; the quiet beginnings make the powerful endings much more dramatic.
Critics have expended reams of words on her background (religious upbringing, substance abuse), but what’s most special is her voice and her songwriting. As much as its evolved over the past couple of years, a large part of its magic comes from simplicity, repetition and emphasis: At the end of “Shadowboxing,” she first murmurs and then yells “Tell me you love me, I wanted so bad to believe it” or “The harder I swim, the faster I sink” — the rawness and yearning in her voice says more than dozens of words. Similarly, “Hurt Less” has a brief, simple piano interlude, possibly derived from a classical composition, that’s so keening and memorable it belongs in a music box. The arrangements skillfully act as a showcase for her voice, approaching and receding to emphasize what she’s saying and frame the impact of her words.
Sure, the intensity can get a bit much — “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright and I know that it’s not but I have to believe that it is,” she sings on “Appointments” — and this is unquestionably one of the most extreme party-killing albums of 2017. But it’s also the first major artistic statement by a gifted singer-songwriter from whom we’re likely to hear much more in the coming years.