Julien Baker ‘Turn out the lights’ review – rawness and painstaking detail

Julien Baker exposes the harsh realities of her mental health struggles, writes Ollie Braddy

Julien Baker performing at Rough Trade NYC on January 25, 2016

Julien Baker’s self-proclaimed “overture” for Turn Out the Lights, titled ‘Over’, shifts between major and minor keys, setting the scene for the next 40 minutes. It’s a beautiful exploration of the highs and lows that define her relationships: with loved ones, her faith, and her own mental health. The album’s narrative, almost entirely autobiographical, exposes us to the harshest realities of living with anxiety and depression but introduces Baker’s newfound optimism that such burdens don’t necessarily eliminate all joy.

It’s been two years since Baker’s first album Sprained Ankle was released, and whilst the production has got slicker and the backing more embellished, with string and woodwind accompaniments present on over half of the eleven tracks, the influence of Sprained Ankle’s success hasn’t detracted from the rawness and painstaking detail of Turn Out the Lights. Standout tracks ‘Appointments’ and ‘Televangelist’ highlight Baker’s unique clarity and really bring us to the heart of what it is to live life with mental health issues. Lines flow into each other, both musically and lyrically, alluding to a manic fluidity of her thoughts, yet they’re contained within an exquisitely peaceful sonic arena of melodic piano/guitar and sweeping vocals.

Throughout the album, we see Baker struggling to reconcile turbulent opposites. On the brooding ‘Sour Breath’ we hear the repeating observation “the harder I swim, the faster I sink” and in ‘Shadowboxing’ we’re told “You’re everything I want, and I’m all that you dread” all of which echo her attempts to reconcile her mental health issues with her ability to be happy. However, in the album’s tremendous finale, ‘Claws in Your Back’, Baker proclaims, “I think I can love the sickness you made, I want it to stay” – a heartfelt statement about the peace she has now found.