Memphis singer and multi-instrumentalist Julien Baker delivers a follow-up to her 2015 solo debut, Sprained Ankle, in the form of a forty-two minute pity party appropriately titled Turn Out the Lights. The eleven songs (ten if you don’t count the short piano and violin intro) are an emotional and often achingly beautiful collection that unfold like the soundtrack to an inordinately long, melancholic montage in the most heartbreaking film you’ve never seen.
“Maybe it’s all gonna turn our alright, I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is,” Baker sings sorrowfully during the chorus to Turn Out the Lights’ first proper song, “Appointments”. The record’s title track follows and offers the first taste of Julien’s powerful vocal capabilities when her voice soars gloriously in the song’s last minute. The song “Sour Breath” pairs lines analogizing substance dependency to a couple dependent on one another for companionship. “The harder I swim, the faster I sink,” Baker repeats during the song’s concluding moments until the music falls away completely and the lyric is shouted one last chill-inducing time. It’s a dramatic moment that occurs appropriately at the end of the record’s first half.
The gorgeous piano ballad “Everything That Helps You Sleep” includes some of Turn Out the Lights’ most vivid and imaginative lyrics. Before begging the Lord to end her restless nights, Baker ruminates on what it would be like to be empty inside, singing, “…my body caving in, a cathedral of arching ribs, heaving out their broken hymns.” The album’s penultimate track, “Even”, is the second half’s lone curveball. Utilizing a natural-sounding acoustic guitar strummed in a rhythmic fashion similar to Elliott Smith, Julien bares feelings of guilt and shared responsibility within a troubled relationship, singing, “It’s not that I think I’m good, I know that I’m evil, I guess I was trying to even it out.” The record’s last song, a piano ballad titled “Claws in Your Back”, has Julien relaying memories of harming herself physically and, “living with demons I’ve mistaken for saints.” The song builds until the track’s last minute when Baker’s vocals take off for a final time, sustaining conclusively as she repeats the line, “I wanted to stay.”
Julien Baker’s lyrics lean heavily on religious imagery. God, Satan, churches, televangelists, and crucifixes all make appearances throughout. This thematic commonality running through songs that already have similar tempos and instrumentation from track to track doesn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation or diversity. Still, Turn Out the Lights does a fine job of committing to a mood, albeit a dour one. If you’re looking for the slightest ray of hope in your time of sadness, this album isn’t for you. But if you’re already depressed and you’re desperate for some empathy, or if you’re just really into sad stuff, look no further.