The Wildcat Tribune

Julien Baker shines EVEN when she has to ‘Turn Out the Lights’

Daniel Shen, Opinions Copy Editor

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Few people in this world can, through music, examine their emotions and express them better than Julien Baker.

With her second studio album, “Turn Out the Lights,” the Tennessee songwriter has clearly distinguished herself among other artists on the subject of depression, one of the most difficult topics to grasp in songwriting. Her brilliant compositions underline the gradual successes  in her fight against mental illness (recounted in her 2015 debut “Sprained Ankle”) in regards to relationships with her romantic partners, God, and herself.

Right off the bat, Baker’s metaphors are beyond poetically enticing; they latch onto the space of the audience’s mind where heartbreak lives and perpetually hang in the air. The title track “Turn Out the Lights” begins with: “There’s a hole in the drywall, still not fixed … And besides, I’m starting to get used to the gaps.” Depression has dug an abyss into her life, and as she accepts the futility of mending it, she also articulates her thoughts with a deftness and wisdom so that the circumstance begs for understanding.

On “Shadowboxing,” she addresses how her romantic partners have treated her illness, singing: “When you watch me throwing punches at the devil / It just looks like I’m fighting with me.” Clearly perceiving their detachment from her condition, the Tennessee songwriter’s awareness of social conflict, even if it is solely due to her insecurity, only adds to the sense that she is always several steps ahead.

Baker generates immense pathos through a means almost unbeknownst to the listener, when she reveals on “Sour Breath” that her lovers would only manipulate her in return for her affection: “Burn everything down to prove you could / Leave me inside a body made of wood.” She is a master of conceit, illustrating herself doubly as a home for her partners’ emotions, inflammable to their destruction of her living spirit. Her lyrics intricately construct dozens of dimensions in thought, always leaving an empty expanse for her to reveal her introspections.

In “Televangelist,” Baker begins to see gaps in the veil as she recognizes the fruitlessness of her condition, wondering, “Am I a masochist / Screaming televangelist / Clutching my crucifix / Of white noise and static?” This time, the allegory of the act of carrying the cross, the presage of her submission to depression, is used to illustrate the connection she desires to establish with heaven. She adopts a uniquely tranquil outlook as she turns her back against self-condemnation and instead, dramatically accepts God’s shadow steps and salvation.

Baker’s journey towards normalcy, narrated with both vulnerability and resilience in her first album on Matador Records, is well encapsulated on the closing track, “Claws in Your Back.” In her ever-brilliant artistry she proves her unrivaled authority upon her darkest fears and secrets: “It’s more than the skeleton next to my coat / The black that I held in the back of my throat.” While thematically antithetical to the exquisite finale, “Go Home,” of her first album “Sprained Ankle,” Baker has only grown more adept at interpreting abstract emotions in her music.

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Julien Baker shines EVEN when she has to ‘Turn Out the Lights’