Turn Out The Lights, Julien Baker, matador, $12.99
Julien Baker’s debut album, Sprained Ankle, self-released in 2015, was a bolt of lightning from out of nowhere. Recorded at the time she was in college, it was a stark contemplation on heartbreak, insecurity, loneliness, addiction and faith, built almost entirely out of gently plucked acoustic guitar and a stirring human voice.
Two years on, Baker is back with Turn Out the Lights – an album that is unabashedly Christian, proudly gay and mature for a 22-year-old woman. Recorded in her hometown at Ardent Studios in Memphis, it is an intricate work of art. While it may lack the soul vibe, it makes up for it in emotional honesty. Primarily piano and guitar driven, the arrangements are often quite sparse. There’s also an amazing sense of fullness to the sound. With just piano, a few strings and a chorus of voices, Hurt Less is a tour de force.
Baker often sounded defeated or apologetic in Sprained Ankle, couching her dejection in the language of physical injury — a metaphor she extends through Televangelist with the couplet, “I’m an amputee with a phantom touch/Leaning on an invisible crutch.” Elsewhere, though, she begins to sound defiant, as though with enough rage she could finally beat back her sadness. “The harder I swim, the faster I sink,” she repeats toward the end of Sour Breath, her voice building to a scream she throttles through a distorted microphone.
In Happy to Be Here, she confronts her maker directly: “I was just wondering if there’s any way that you made a mistake… I heard there’s a fix for everything/Then why/Then why/Then why not me?” Her voice climbs each time she repeats the question, until it breaks and hangs in the air around her. By the end of the song, she ameliorates her frustration by opting to “grit my teeth and try to act deserving/When I know there is nowhere I can hide from your humiliating grace.”
In her cracked but steady voice, she asks familiar questions at the beginning of the album: Am I enough? Do I deserve to be here? Will I ever be OK? In the album’s final moments, she at last settles on something like an answer. “I think I can love the sickness you made,” she sings, “I want it to stay.” She thunders out the last syllable in an unbridled belt, the kind that sparks full-body shivers no matter how fortified your guard may be. Her voice echoes into what sounds like a cavernous space, and then you hear her close the lid of the piano, the heavy work of catharsis behind her.