In her first album, Sprained Ankle, Julien Baker uses a pedalboard to loop gently plucked guitar
strings into a self-layered symphony, marked by its almost terrifying intimacy, and ultimately ending in
despair over the difficulties of substance abuse, depression, and death. Her second album, Turn Out the
Lights, brings something radically different, but still distinctly familiar. She introduces piano, violin, and
clarinet, all without losing the previous intimacy. But the album isn’t set apart by the instruments; it’s the
journey to hope that distinguishes Turn Out the Lights.
Baker sings like a river: softly flowing along at first, only to crescendo into an unbridled roar that
can barely contain its own power. She uses this power to discuss deeply intimate, emotional matters,
writing about anxiety, failed relationships, and the fear of isolation. The album opens with the sound of
Baker walking across a creaky wooden floor and sitting at a piano bench, giving the listener the
impression that to listen to Turn Out the Lights is to sit side-by-side with a close friend and confront the
hardest aspects of being human. However, Baker has found some hope since the last we’ve heard her. At
the end of the second track “Appointments”, in delicately layered harmonies, she sings with a voice
cracking under its own strength: “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright / I know that it’s not, but I have to
believe that it is”. Despite the myriad of troubles she’s gone through, Baker harbors a resilient flame that
refuses to be silenced. Her hope may seem unreasonable, but it carries on.
Many of the songs on Turn Out the Lights follow a powerful pattern. They begin with Baker’s
vulnerable voice and a single instrument, either guitar or piano, then add harmonies with varying
instruments as the song goes on. This format finds great success in songs like “Shadowboxing”, where the
end of the song finds itself shrouded by ethereal harmonies, delicate piano and bleached violin, and Baker
screaming from the depths of her gut: “Tell me you loved me”. The juxtaposition of the punk vocals and
folky instrumentation is a chillingly fresh combination. But following the same pattern in most of her
songs could be accused of becoming repetitive. In “Happy to Be Here”, the format fails. The grungy,
nearly clashing chords that cycle throughout the entirety of the song quickly become boring, and there
isn’t enough variation to keep the song interesting.
Title tracks should be picked out carefully, and Baker certainly chose hers well. The song “Turn
Out the Lights” builds to what sounds like a full rock band by the end, even though she only uses her
voice and the electric guitar. She sings about the dangerous thoughts that accompany her mental illness,
ending with “When I turn out the lights / There’s no one left / Between myself and me”. In the dark, she is
free to confront her darkest thoughts. The entire album is an exercise in turning out the lights; song by song, she works through her struggles. When isolated from the rest of the lyrics, the title of the song, and
consequently the album, is an imperative command. Baker is asking us to turn out our lights. She’s asking
us to set aside our quotidian concerns and confront our problems. It’s easy to ignore that imperative, and
ignore our own mental struggles, but Baker would have us confront the worst things about ourselves in
order to come to a greater sense of hope just as she did.
Written by Hannah Y.