Julien Baker - Turn Out the Lights Album Review
Few independent artists have spurred such a ground swell following on pure talent alone this decade like Julien Baker. The 22-year-old singer/songwriter hailing from Memphis quietly released her debut Sprained Ankle in Oct. 2015, a stripped-down, slowcore take on the modern singer/songwriter album that held no punches when it came to its raw depictions of depression and self-hatred. The intimacy of the album struck a chord with major indie acts, landing Baker opening spots for the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and The National. These appearances ultimately led to Baker being signed by Matador Records in early 2017. Striking while the flames of acclaim for her past record are still burning brightly, Baker and Matador have released Sprained Ankle’s follow up, Turn Out the Lights.
Immediately evident is Baker’s growth as a songwriter. Whereas Sprained Ankle excelled at capturing intimate moments of suffering in perfect focus, Turn Out the Lights paints with broader strokes to capture Baker’s personal experience living a life with the mental health issues she battles. Sprained Ankle allowed many listeners to project themselves into the situations Baker was experiencing, while Turn Out the Lights is more reflective and introspective.
This inward focus creates a much more cohesive and ultimately more impactful emotional resonance for the album as a whole. It’s nearly impossible to finish Turn Out the Lights without an increased empathy for those who suffer from similar mental health issues as Baker. Absent are the superfluous metaphors that too often singer/songwriters employ to capture what it feels like to suffer from depression and self-hatred. Baker’s helplessness feels palatable, illustrating suffering in a way that so many who suffer with mental illness find impossible to describe. The opening verse of “Hurt Less” alone encapsulates Baker’s ability to translate this pain for the inexperienced listener.
But what too is immediately evident is Baker’s move to a larger independent record label that can provide her with more financial backing for producing her record. Gone is the feeling of being at the end of Baker’s bed as she plays these songs just for you. Baker utilizes backing strings and pianos throughout the entirety of Turn Out the Lights, with “Even” being the only song on the album that remotely sounds as if it could have landed on Sprained Ankle. While the new backing instrumentation certainly elicits the emotions Baker is singing about on the album, it further removes Baker from center stage. Often it detaches the song from Baker herself, who is the lyrical focus of every song. The addition of increased reverb and echo effects only escalates this undesirable effect further.
Turn Out the Lights serves as a perfect example as to how increased production quality is a double edged sword. While any and all efforts by artists to progress and evolve their sound is always welcome, these efforts cannot be successful if they are done with disregard for what made the artist unique in the first place. While Baker’s improved songwriting feels like two steps forward in achieving a more personal and intimate style, the overproduced recording and instrumental approach is a step back in this endeavor. Baker has, without a doubt, released one of the most important albums of the decade lyrically, but undermines the potency and ability for those lyrics to resonate by crowding her songs with additional instrumentation and effects that move her further away from center stage. Perhaps the less intimate instrumentation will allow Baker’s lyrical achievement to reach a broader audience, but from an artistic perspective, it dulls the album's ability to cut emotionally deeper into the listener.
Chandler Copenheaver is a senior majoring in public relations. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Senior / Public Relations