Album of the Week: Julien Baker | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Album of the Week: Julien Baker

Turn Out the Lights Out Now via Matador

Oct 27, 2017 Album of the Week Photography by Crackerfarm (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

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Singer/songwriter Julien Baker is on the cover of Under the Radar‘s current print issue (Issue 62/Fall 2017) and earlier this week we gave her new album Turn Out the Lights a rave 9/10 review. So it should come as no surprise that Turn Out the Lights is our Album of the Week. We liked it so much that we’ve had two of our writers, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Stephen Wyatt, write about how great it is. Read both their write-ups below.

Here are Ellen Peirson-Hagger’s thoughts on the album:

Honesty too often feels overly polished. If a song or artist is heralded as “raw,” the music is most likely uncomfortably and dramatically over-emotional. It is a rare thing to find a songwriter whose emotional intensity and commitment to truth-telling is breathtaking because of its sheer realness: no romantic flourishes, no excessive details.

Julien Baker’s second album, Turn Out the Lights, picks up just where her first, 2015’s Sprained Ankle, left off. Baker’s musical sensitivity and willingness to sometimes depict the bleakest moments in her life does not make her music over-dramatized or too dressed-up. Instead, the subtle but always forward-moving guitar and piano accompaniment on much of the record, released today on Matador Records, ­exposes a haunting delicacy.

After recording Sprained Ankle at the age of 18 with a friend in just a few days, her sparkling second effort was recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios in Baker’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. She hasn’t lost her low-maintenance youthful sound, but where moments of that first offering felt as though they were just waiting to be arranged for a full band, Turn Out the Lights is riddled with delicate woodwind intricacies and draped with restrained string parts as on “Shadowboxing,” where piano, guitar and violin bolster Baker’s steadily growing vocal. Her voice is reminiscent of Phoebe Bridgers (whom Baker has brought on tour with her) at its brightest moments, or Sharon Van Etten at its most bruised.

Despite this larger (though still very much subdued) orchestration, the sparsity of the earliest moments of “Sour Breath” are still gorgeously uninhibited and untethered. Here she really is singing about a partner’s “sour breath,” a topic which could be made disgusting or achingly romanticized. For Baker, it is nothing but distinctly real, becoming a force that “Breaks on my face like a wave of emptiness.”

Lyrically, Baker has not moved too far away from what fans of Sprained Ankle will be keen to hear once again: she has questions for God (there is even a church-like organ on the title track), past lovers, and, most often and most pleasingly, for herself. These queries tend to be laced around the possibility of joy, and her proximity to it. Giving background to the album, Baker has spoken of being happy as a “kind of fleeting and transient emotion…whereas happiness seems to be this horizon that’s eternally getting further from you, joy is something that you can inhabit.”

It is towards joy, then, that we head, through grief, addiction, panic attacks and wishes to “climb inside my ears and re-arrange the wires in my brain” (“Happy to Be Here”). It is not a reckless joy, but a considered one, to which Baker is on track. “I used to never wear a seatbelt because I said I didn’t care” soon becomes “This year I started wearing safety belts” on “Hurt Less,” a rippling piano number full of Baker’s signature muscular drive, rare for an artist so keen on introspection.

The record’s stand-out track is lead single “Appointments.” As always, Baker sings with tenderness-“Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright/And I know that it’s not/But I have to believe that it is”-a tenderness so incredibly absorbing because it is at once heart-breaking and familiar.

Turn Out the Lights is a record perfectly blemished with familiarity. Despite Baker’s known hardships, this reality makes for an exceptionally warming listen.

Here are Stephen Wyatt’s thoughts on the album:

Few albums in recent years performed with poignant, blunt honesty as Julien Baker’s debut Sprained Ankle. As someone who possesses the strength to confront her demons all the while noting her own doubt to genuinely overcome them, Baker also recognizes the power gained from surviving them. “I know myself better than anybody else” was the sort of self-awareness she discovered on the guitar-and-voice only “Everybody Does.” The slow marching sadness of “Good News” sounds like 2 a.m. conversations between two people who know that their futures will meet with demise.

To follow up an album of late night scribbled thoughts pouring outward like a leaky vessel that was touched with a coarse beauty that triumphs over the previous work seems impossible. However, on Turn Out the Lights, Baker grows into her determined role as one of this era’s most noteworthy singer/songwriters, expanding her musical color schemes to include strings and woodwind instruments to add depth and perspective to the raw honesty she expresses with master strokes.

Themes of sobriety and lost faith pervade Turn Out the Lights until the album’s end. “Claws in Your Back,” with its slow-played block piano chords make her voice strong and resolved in spite of many critics referencing it as “frail” and “vulnerable.” The strings push between the soft-loud dynamics. Her words push outward whatever plagued her before: “I think I can love the sickness you make” is followed with her most thwarting and heartfelt vocal performance yet. As the song concludes, the sound of the piano closing feels like a resolution agreed upon for at least the moment.

Why start at the end? Because the album increases in strength with each song. This is not fortuitous. Turn Out the Lights plays like a memoir, and “Claws in Your Back” is its climax. “Appointments,” the album’s second track, sets the tone for the entire narrative. Subtleties dominate each second until the teased crescendos at the end. The twilight picked guitar line holds the bursts of backing vocals together. The title track pushes and pulls between letting go and holding on to her most beloved vices. Her voice explodes and shatters any self doubt at its conclusion.

Screaming fears on “Shadowboxing,” the album’s exemplary track amongst many exemplary tracks, become a comfort as Baker wrestles with, whole racked and tortured by, her faith. Again, she gains confidence as the track pushes toward its dynamic ending-a motif that gives the album its distinctive personality.

After repeated listens, it is easy to misunderstand Turn Out the Light‘s intent. Like any great piece of art, more is gleaned by returning to it at different times and stages in life. More will be pulled away from it like a puss-filled scab that over time will heal. And each one of Baker’s releases feels this way.

Read our rave 9/10 review of Turn Out the Lights.

Pick up Under the Radar‘s current print issue (Issue 62/Fall 2017) to read our new in-depth cover story interview with Julien Baker.

Join Under the Radar on Patreon in the next week to win a vinyl copy of Turn Out the Lights.

Read our 2016 interview with Baker and our 2015 Artist Survey interview with her.

Julien Baker Tour Dates:

10/27 New York, NY @ Town Hall *
10/28 Somerville, MA @ Somerville Theatre * (SOLD OUT)
10/29 Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer *
11/03 The Hague, NL @ Crossing Border Festival
11/04 Utrecht, NL @ Ekko
11/06 Bristol, UK @ The Lantern
11/07 Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club
11/08 Glasgow, UK @ CCA
11/09 Dublin, IE @ Whelans
11/10 London, UK @ Union Chapel (SOLD OUT)
11/12 Brussels, BE @ Autumn Falls
11/13 Paris, FR @ Les Etoiles
11/14 Berlin, DE @ Heimathafen Neukolln
11/15 Hamburg, DE @ Uebel & Gefahrlich
11/16 Düsseldorf, DE @ New Fall Festival
11/17 Madrid, ES @ El Sol
11/18 Braga, PT @ Theatro Circo
11/19 Barcelona, ES @ La De Apolo
11/29 Knoxville, TN @ Bijou Theatre**
11/30 Nashville, TN @ Marathon Music Works**
12/01 Memphis, TN @ 1884 Lounge**
12/02 St. Louis, MO @ Delmar Hall %
12/04 Boulder, CO @ Fox Theatre %
12/06 Missoula, MT @ Top Hat Lounge %
12/07 Spokane, WA @ The Bartlett %
12/08 Seattle, WA @ Neptune Theatre %
12/09 Vancouver, BC @ Rickshaw Theatre %
12/10 Portland, OR @ Aladdin Theater %
12/12 San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore %
12/14 Los Angeles, CA @ Palace Theatre %
12/15 San Diego, CA @ The Irenic %
12/16 Phoenix, AZ @ The Crescent Ballroom %
12/18 Austin, TX @ Emo’s %
12/19 Houston, TX @ The Heights Theater %
12/20 Dallas, TX @ The Kessler Theater %

* Half Waif and Petal support
** David Bazan supports
% Half Waif and Adam Torres support

Album of the Week Runner-ups (Also Released This Week):

Baxter Dury: Prince of Tears (Heavenly)
John Maus: Screen Memories (Ribbon Music)
Weezer: Pacific Daydream (Crush Music/Atlantic)

Support Under the Radar on Patreon.


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