Review Summary: Hurt less, talk moreBlush
It’s alright, everybody does
When Julien Baker sings, “You can’t even imagine how badly it hurts”, I don’t think the intention was ever to alienate the listener. After all, it was with Sprained Ankle
that the singer-songwriter unwittingly bridged a gap between the insulated and communal. What should’ve distanced an audience instead attracted one, and through a sense of shared anguish both artist and listener found themselves folded within collective embrace, a comfort borne from detachment. It was a stroke of luck that beckoned the void to answer back. Indeed, a great deal of talent, too, though I’ve little doubt Julien’s charm on that album was an unconscious one. Turn Out the Lights
, on the other hand, capitalises on this appeal in the most deliberate sense. On it, Julien crafts intimacy for the sake of collective grief and communal catharsis. Its tales unfold as such, and with it I’m forced to accept that her music was never just for me.
Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright
Turn Out the Lights
can be quite a warm listen. For an album so emotionally dense – one so acutely focused on Julien’s struggles with her persistent demons – this might seem surprising. However, the comfort and communal fortitude that can be found in shared sorrow shouldn’t be underestimated. As Julien laments on ‘Even’ and the t/t – demonstrating an incessant awareness of, fixation on, and self-destructive obsession with her flaws – it’s as soothing as it is distressing. There’s a certain catharsis to be found in her tales of missed appointments, sleepless nights and faulty circuitry, reminders that we all bleed and need patching-up occasionally.
What could have been an overbearing affair is saved by deftly woven optimism, switching up the desolate and bedraggled tone of Sprained Ankle
for a tentatively pretty palette of sounds. Keys spiral and strings soar on ‘Hurt Less’, almost reluctantly bursting lilac and gold as a tale of stubborn camaraderie unfolds. Even through the record’s more morose moments, lush compositions prevent things getting too distraught, from the gorgeous climax of ‘Shadowboxing’ to the reverb-laden ‘Happy to Be Here’. It’s never quite elating, just a softly ebbing undercurrent to match the smattering of lyrical concessions: “There’s always tomorrow, I guess.”
A couple of months back my Granddad passed away, a wonderful, caring man who I miss dearly. The comfort of the communal certainly kept me going throughout that period: a firm last hug at the hospital, a quiet cry with my sister, and a brave face amongst many at the funeral. Whilst of course not to the same extent, Julien has helped me too. Her pained cries and confessions of weakness have been another source of warmth and reassurance, an important reminder that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and that things do get better. For that, I’m grateful.
All my prayers are just apologies
Darkness and solidarity are ever-present here on Julien’s second full-length effort. In fact, often times it feels like the room’s lights are being played with by God himself, switching them on and off and on again seemingly without reason. Like Julien, I’m sitting in the darkness, scared he’ll never turn those lights back on. What really drew me to Sprained Ankle
was her expressive ability to portray the dissolution and ignition of one’s faith, something I haven’t seen done so well since David Bazan’s bleak yet clinging output under Pedro the Lion. The unflinching honesty that undoubtedly propelled Julien Baker into the spotlight has now expanded into the enlivening territory of perseverance; Turn Out the Lights
embodies both of these notions and acts as a matured sequel. Although I can’t seem to match the enthusiastic proclamations of her belief in Him, there’s a light within her that I desperately want to spread to my own unlit heart.
Whether it’s “living with demons I’ve mistaken for saints
” or fighting with those demons that end up looking like oneself, there’s this constant push and pull of uncertainty. On ‘Televangelist’, there’s a sense of self-denouncement: “Am I a masochist / screaming televangelist / clutching my crucifix / of white noise and static"
” Contrastingly, ‘Happy to Be Here’ flips the accusation back towards God, as she questions, “And if there’s enough left after everyone else, then why God why not me"
” Even if struggling with faith is a common lyrical theme (although it now trends more towards the loss of it), Julien’s recipe for this conceit mirrors my own journey with brutal accuracy. It’s the musical form of those moments to yourself, questioning if you’re actually speaking with a higher being or just your own conscience. While I prefer the intimately selfish endeavors seen in her debut, there’s beauty found within sharing her own struggles in order to encourage and help others rather than herself. Ironically, it just so happens that I’m now the one that needs this consolation through communion.
I think I’ll forever be haunted by ‘Claws in Your Back’s’ soaring and phantasmal melody that breathes right at the 1-minute mark. While fleeting, I’m convinced it’s the most evocative musical snippet I’ve heard as of late. In fact, it gives me hope, even though I so often try to fight this optimism. Whether or not I’ve conducted these “experiments” myself is irrelevant because it’s the feeling alone that illustrates how Julien’s grown and excoriated such actions. So I’ll try to stay calm Julien, I’ll carry this darkness around and I’ll learn how to love it, I’ll count my blessings instead of doubting them so that, hopefully, one day God decides to turn on the lights again.
I think I can love the sickness you made
This is a different Julien Baker to the one who shuffled nervously up to the stand on Sprained Ankle
. No matter how devastating or poignant that album was, one has to admit there was a sense of apprehension emanating from Baker. Here, however, she commands. Everything from her confident vocal performance to the expansive backing instrumentation proves that she’s far more assured this time around.
Some lament the extensive musical palate compared to the sparse intimacy of her debut, believing that emotion is sacrificed in favour of anthemic ballads designed for mass audiences. While I certainly see where some of this disdain is coming from, I can’t share the opinion that size robs the album of its power. If anything, the immensity of the record makes for a more accurate representation of Julien’s vision. I have no doubt that if Sprained Ankle
could have sounded this huge and frankly expensive, it would have. The evidence is all there in her voice: her moans and cries have always begged to ring out the way they do here, echoing through the imaginary halls of houses, the skulls of people she couldn’t yet reach. On her debut, we heard her restrained but endearing voice as it was recorded in that little studio; here, we hear it as it sounds in her mind: full, resounding, yet broken and strangely empty. Just as her performance here is a contradiction, so is the album, somehow surer of itself, more outgoing, and yet also more personal and honest. If anything, this is the balance I yearned for and felt was destined since first hearing Sprained Ankle
. Julien must have felt it too.
Her assuredness naturally finds its way into her lyricism as well, with newfound wisdom affecting the way she looks at the world. When discussing masterful closer ‘Claws in Your Back,’ she admits to having done a 180 on the way she looked at the world:
“It’s about some of my friends who were feeling that same kind of hopelessness. And when my heart was breaking to see them feeling the way that I had, I thought, ‘I wish I could tell them that if they could just hang on that there’s a way out and there’s a reason to stay’ - as in, like, literally, stay alive. And so I take it back. I don’t want to just waste my life being sad; I want to stay; I want to make it better; I want to try.”
Where ‘Go Home’ left an open-ended feeling of confusion and desperation, punctuating Sprained Ankle
with a question of existence, ‘Claws in Your Back’ ends in a declaration – a feeling of purpose, that as simple as it is, is strong enough to force her to carry on. When we hear her close her piano and leave the studio, we aren’t left with a question, but an answer, a sense of finality. Sometimes all we need to keep going are the people we care about, the people we learn from, our mistakes, and the people who learn from them. It’s something I myself have been forced to come to terms with, and something I’m relieved to hear Julien has concluded too.
It’s easy to get lost in the mythology of musicians. Often, they tower over us, acting as gods of another realm, of artistic brilliance that we could never hope to achieve. With Julien, it’s the opposite. It’s clearly not our place to call her a friend or even a hero. Rather, more than any other musician, I see her as a peer: someone barely a couple years my elder that continues to channel her fear and despair into art for everyone to pick apart and analyze, just as we are doing here. She’s brave. Incredibly brave. And I think she’s realized that too.
I changed my mind, I wanted to stay
…Because of course the next logical step for Julien would be to expand in sound, of course Turn Out the Lights is a long, heavy exhale from a breath too-long held, and of course this is -- as most of us very quickly realised -- a communal record.
Julien could never have achieved this without those violins and those keys to accompany her. Though, I’m certain, the added instrumentation here isn’t a bridge between artist and audience, rather the opposite; the shift in sound creates a distance, from which Julien feels safe (enough) to show the rot and bruising in her cannibal chest. People can do damage up close, be it by accident or otherwise.
So no, I don’t think it’s the sound that denotes this fucked-up, shared experience in pain and self-doubt. It’s a way of acknowledging the listener, of telling us “I’m sorry, but I’m not safe right now” before taking a few steps back and divulging what she sees in the mirror. And we hear it happening: Over
is Julien creating that space between us, a minor arpeggio played on a grand piano melting into the same arpeggio on an electric guitar as she turns around to face the audience.
But it’s the lyrical content and the vocal delivery which proves she hurts no less than she did on Sprained Ankle
. I don’t think the delivery is confident (sorry, Neek; that’s the beauty of collab reviews though, hey), it’s desperate. Julien can’t help spilling those massive vocal climaxes – predictable and/or rote, sure, but no less devastating for the potency with which they convey her despair. They’re everywhere: heralding the end of Appointments
, appearing as a crack in the mould during Sour Breath
, and finishing the record in Claws in Your Back
. Because if Julien weren’t so loud and so precariously positioned, she wouldn’t need to be heard.
When I watched Julien play, she stood at the end of a packed room – a small figure against a backdrop of deep red curtains and snaking leads. I sat on the stage because there was no room to stand, and it was so silent between songs I could hear the bend of the notes as she re-tuned her guitar. When she wasn’t piercing the atmosphere with belted pleas, she was meek and clawing at words to fill the gaps between songs with. We could tell that there was this significant part of her falling through on a distressed frown – one that would’ve rather been anywhere else.
Despite that, she told us “thank you” more than what’s probably normal, and more than we probably deserved. It was like she needed us a whole lot more than she wanted us, and so she powered through, forcing herself through therapy with just a road-worn and echoing guitar.
I took a picture with Julien that night, and I have a feeling she was just as nervous (okay, maybe not just
as...but close) as me when I asked her. I’m sure the encounter made her feel as this album explains: people are scary, and they can be traced throughout years of sadness, but you’ll break if you don’t let them help fix you.
And I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is
I don’t think Julien’s intention has ever been to alienate the listener; rather than distancing, her music has always felt inclusive in its detachment. I wouldn’t use the word “brave” (although I both understand and appreciate the sentiment), however I do believe there to be something admirable in an artist packaging their pain for consumption. As much a consumer of music as a performer of it, Julien understands and thus capitalises on the power of communal anguish within this context. (I’ll leave the religious ponderance to Connor.) ‘Hurt Less’ details a narrative in which solace is found through friendship and mutual understanding. ‘Even’, with its blunt, acoustic downstrokes, tells a similar tale of "stubborn camaraderie”, as Ben aptly describes of the former song. (The song adopts a dark, even cutting sense of humour, I’ll add, reflecting the messiness of intimacy.) Each of the two tracks precede ‘Claws in Your Back’, and in so lay a foundation for the realisation that neither is “the sickness” exclusive to Julien, nor does it need to be resolved through self-defeat – a foundation for which the closer builds its climax.
“That [line] is, uh, not good,” Jack once remarked with regard to the first of the song’s lyrical climaxes: “I’m better off learning how to be living with demons I’ve mistaken for saints.” While I’m inclined to disagree, having in the past found comfort in Julien’s melodrama, I do think his point best touches on what are some of Julien’s broader intentions with Turn Out the Lights. I’ll concede that the line’s heavy-handedness does perhaps err toward a poignantly histrionic characterisation of depression; however, paired with its succeeding sentence (“if you keep it between us, I think they’re the same”), it morphs into something not only profoundly beautiful, but stirringly deliberate, bringing the deeply personal into a realm of communal solitude. As both Connor and Andrew so rightly point out, ‘Claws in Your Back’ is indicative of a profound shift in perspective for Julien. It contextualises deep, personal reflection within the second person, at once inviting the listener in on its anguish, and sharing in the knowledge that is wrought. It’s not irrational to want to give up, to give in, or to go home. But neither is it implausible to learn to love the sickness, the chemicals within our brains that make us feel as though things have never and will never be okay. I think there’s a beauty in that, one that’s inseparable from life itself; I hope you do, too. Julien certainly does; and she hopes you do, too.