When Julien Baker released her debut album, Sprained Ankle, in the fall of 2015, its intimate portrait of mental health, faith and substance abuse placed the former MTSU student into the national spotlight. During the months leading up to her sophomore effort, Turn Out the Lights, Baker toured internationally, signed with indie label Matador Records and opened for several of her most revered musical luminaries, including Conor Oberst and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard.
On Turn Out the Lights, Baker meditates on the struggle of confronting loneliness, whether it’s stemmed from mental illness, heartbreak or what happens when those themes intersect (and they often do). Where Sprained Ankle thrives in its sparse arrangements and lo-fi instrumentation, Turn Out the Lights is at its best when Baker expands her soundscape to include delicate piano melodies and orchestral swells, the latter provided by former MTSU student and violinist Camille Faulkner. The most powerful instrument remains Baker’s voice, which employs just as much emotion with a whisper as it does when she’s shouting at the top of her range.
Baker’s linear approach to songwriting doesn’t conform to the traditional structure of verse, chorus and bridge. The 22-year-old songwriter instead seems to craft metaphorically rich lyrics from a cohesive train of thought. She does this exceptionally well on “Happy to Be Here,” which hears her questioning if God is aware of her flaws:
A diagram of faulty circuitry explains how I was made . . . I was just wondering if there’s any way that you made a mistake
On “Hurt Less,” Baker proclaims her decision to forego wearing a seat belt because she doesn’t see the point in saving herself, but by the end she finds someone who makes life worth living. “Sour Breath” and “Even” more closely fit the mold of Baker’s debut, being guitar-driven songs that wrestle with self-doubt and relationships. The album is not without its pitfalls, though, as ballads like “Televangelist” and “Shadowboxing” are less focused and become lost in the mix.
By the end of Turn Out the Lights, Baker reaches the core of the album’s thesis: instead of taking “the easy way out,” she decides that it’s better to stay and love herself despite the flaws that keep her up at night.
I take it all back, I change my mind, she sings, before bellowing out her decision, I want to stay.
Turn Out the Lights is available through Matador Records, iTunes, Spotify and Amazon.