A door creaks open, closed. Something cold and metallic clatters. In these first few seconds, no song yet, but sound. So begins the first track of Julien Baker’s new album, Turn Out the Lights, her first for Matador Records. It’s an interesting opening, and a strategic one. First, we’re given a setting: In my mind, it’s an old, abandoned house. We’ve nosed our way into it, casting aside a chain that blocks the way. Milky light comes in through the half-shuttered windows. Our feet make marks in dust. And then the song comes. In this instrumental opening track, “Over,” we get piano and violin, not the guitar we’ve come to expect (I’ve now learned that that’s Julien playing the piano rather impressively throughout the record). The piano is slightly out of tune, clunky yet bright; the strings are thin, reedy, yet warm, like the moaning of a ghost. We’ve stepped into a haunted house, and now Julien is going to suck our demons out. Right off the bat, we know we’re in for an expansion.
After establishing this specific setting with a bit of found sound, we are, for the next 40-plus minutes, no longer in the room. Perhaps we are floating, experiencing the removal from reality that Julien describes in the song “Hurt Less”: “When I’m pitched through the windshield, I hope the last thing that I felt before the pavement was my body float.” Julien’s ability to toe the line between the here and the not-here is one of the most remarkable aspects of her art. We get this through an exploration of diegetic and non-diegetic sound: sound that has definite source versus sound that is pure mood. While her lyrics ground us in the source of our bodies – by explicitly addressing the body’s decay, amputation, morphing, and general shortcomings – her chord progressions and melodic peaks and valleys guide us into a state of mind that has no anchor in time or space. We can in one instance be in the holiest of dreamscapes and also be examining the shape of our fist in the plaster at a Motel 6 (“Even”).
Julien has always had a way with words, but she shows even more sophistication on this record with the scope of her imagery. We still get the graphic violence that externalizes an internal pain (like being burned alive and having a heart that eats itself in her “cannibal chest” in “Televangelist”), which was the language of her last record, Sprained Ankle, but there’s a new thread linking that pained, dynamic viscera with a more inert design—a means of separating the emotion from the source. In “Shadowboxing,” she describes “a fuse in the back of my head.” In “Happy To Be Here,” “a diagram of faulty circuitry explains how I was made.” She’s not just blood and guts, she tells us—she’s wired, thus incapable of controlling the feeling and reaction.
The interplay between emotion and design is also found in the many references to churches and cathedrals. The explicit inclusion of religious elements vaults us into the physically lofty and dizzying arcs of these holy places in a perfect marriage of their structure and her sound. (Anyone who has seen Julien perform live knows that her music is built to resonate in this kind of endless-sounding chamber.) “Happy To Be Here” features one hell of a refrain that demonstrates this: “Then why, then why, then why, then why not me?” Julien sings, her pleading voice reaching up to the pinnacle, the pedestal, but ultimately falling short. Like with the circuitry in her body, her focus on religious structures points to the way concrete forms can affect our abstract emotion. And, more than that, how they can provide a backdrop for our loss of control.
The production on the album, much more noticeable than on the last record, clearly recognizes that Julien’s melodies and chord progressions—built around space and anticipation—sound holy. There’s a lot of reverb. There are more harmonies now, back-up vocals that soar on wings of oohs and ahhs. The guitar glistens. Just when our ears threaten to dissolve into all that shimmer, we are given moments of reprieve, so welcome and well-placed. On the title track, when a crunchy guitar enters, I hadn’t even realized I’d been craving it—how it cuts through the wash and announces itself with a growl, a reminder that it’s not all reverie. Later, in “Sour Breath,” Julien cries, her voice dry and direct, “You’re everything I want, and I’m all that you dread,” to a sudden silence. These grittier moments highlight that cool dichotomy of her sound: the weighted lyrics and the buoyant melodies.
Having had the pleasure of sharing the stage with her a number of times, I can say firsthand that Julien is one of the most impressive singers and vocal performers I have ever witnessed. So much energy and anguish and redemption pumps through her small frame, blasting through the space equally hot and cold. She frays her voice into splinters for us, or maybe more for herself, letting us bear witness. I don’t think that power quite came across to its fullest on Sprained Ankle, so I was thrilled to hear the first single on Turn Out the Lights, “Appointments,” and the chilling climax where her voice scrapes into and then pummels through the upper octave. Turn Out the Lights is rich with these moments of abandon, becoming a showcase for her vocal chops. The subtler moments do not go unnoticed, either. Take the little vocal trill that falls off the word “alone” in “Televangelist.” That kills me. Her voice scratches; it catches and cascades as she lets us into every crevice.
This is a record to be proud of. Anyone who knows Julien’s past work will hear clear strides forward. Anyone who is coming to her music for the first time should be proud of themselves for finding it, the treasure at the bottom of a sunken ghost ship. “Claws In Your Back,” a fitting ending for the album, recaps the elements that have made this journey memorable: the plaintive knots of piano chords that bend like warped tape; the big vocals that bring the song home and force the listener into full-body chills. After so many indirect references to death, she speaks openly here of “conducting an experiment of how it feels to die,” as if to say: If I can know it, I won’t be afraid. It’s an aching expression of futility—much like the busted circuitry—that nonetheless holds all the power of belief. And belief, in both demons and saints, is what keeps these songs floating up toward the high cathedral ceiling, even as they grapple through the mud of what it means to love and be alive. At the end of the song, a door firmly closes. We were not here, and now we are here. The singer has left the room, but it is still full of sound.