Julien Baker’s debut album, 2015’s Sprained Ankle, was a bolt of lightning from out of nowhere, zapped down from heaven directly into a bottle bobbing in a vast and lonely ocean.
Recorded during Baker’s freshman year in college, it’s a stark meditation on heartbreak, insecurity, loneliness, addiction and faith, built almost entirely out of gently plucked acoustic guitar and one particularly stirring human voice. Sprained Ankle is quietly intense, devastatingly sad and stunningly beautiful.
This review is not about Sprained Ankle, but it’s impossible to assess Baker’s sophomore effort, Turn Out the Lights, without acknowledging its predecessor’s considerable shadow. Two years ago, the debut snuck up on all but a handful of people. Turn Out the Lights will sneak up on no one.
That’s a tricky place to be, but Baker handles it with grace on Turn Out the Lights, an album that feels like a logical next step for the Memphis singer-songwriter, but never overreaches. And overreaching would’ve been easy.
For example, it’s clear Baker is working with significantly more resources this time. Where Sprained Ankle’s rawness was captured in a few days with a friend producing, Turn Out the Lights sounds lush and meticulously made—at the famous Ardent Studios in Memphis, no less. Sprained Ankle was initially self-released via Bandcamp; Turn Out the Lights is out on legendary indie label Matador Records. And where the debut is stripped to the bone, sonically speaking, its followup features lots of keyboards, plus string sections, vocal harmonies and more atmosphere. On Sprained Ankle, it sounds like Baker is sitting close and singing to you; Turn Out the Lights doesn’t have the same unsettling sense of intimacy.
Don’t misunderstand: That intimacy wasn’t sacrificed to make way for chilly distance or flamboyance. Instead, it is replaced by a brighter, more muscular beauty. This is most evident on the album’s first single, “Appointments,” which finds Baker unfurling a tale of sadness and hope atop guitars that sparkle and pulse like a dramatic post-rock band, not an indie-folk artist. On the title track, Baker sings of the persistence of self-doubt and the primal nature of self-reliance as a simple guitar line undulates into a crunchy, cathartic chorus. These are moments that weren’t possible under Sprained Ankle’s constraints.
Elsewhere, “Televangelist” and “Hurt Less” showcase the album’s pronounced turn to the piano; the former ends with a heavenly chorus of oohs, while the latter’s sprightly pace sharply contrasts its painful story. And “Sour Breath” shimmers in slo-mo for two minutes before crescendoing. “The harder I swim, the faster I sink,” Baker repeats over and over, her voice approaching a scream. Around every corner, Baker practices restraint where she could’ve gone for a bigger moment. The effect is an album that’s powerful but not overwrought.
Lyrically, people will interpret Turn Out the Lights in different ways, but the bottom line is that Baker isn’t far from the place she occupied on Sprained Ankle. “I heard there’s a fix for everything, then why not me?” she sings in “Happy to Be Here.” In “Shadowboxing,” she plays with words: “You can’t even imagine how badly it hurts just to think sometimes how I think almost all the time.” Ouch. It’s not always her fault, though. “You don’t have to remind me so much how I disappoint you,” she sings in “Appointments.”
One of Baker’s great gifts as a songwriter is her relatability. She communicates pain and confusion in plain terms, sprinkling in self-destructive fantasies, questions for God, internal monologue, desperate pleading and other common devices, delivering it all through a voice that simmers with emotion. Baker doesn’t just make you feel, she makes it feel real. Very, very real.