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New music: Julien Baker

By Jason Herring, December 4 2017 —

The 2015 debut album from Tennessee’s Julien Baker was almost uncomfortably candid. The 22-year-old songwriter confided about being Christian, gay and suffering through depression and addiction through sparse arrangements that felt more like canvases for confessional poetry than fully formed songs. Her sophomore effort, Turn Out the Lights, hits the same notes while adding polished instrumentation to the mix.

“Appointments” is an early-album highlight, documenting the frustrating cycle of being unable to go to therapy or see a doctor because symptoms of the same illness inhibit the appointments that would treat it. Its backing flirts with post-rock tropes, letting the same progression of pianos and twinkling guitars repeat among swelling strings as Baker’s voice crescendos overtop.

Pianos and strings reappear throughout Turn Out the Lights, but they’re clearly secondary to Baker’s voice and lyrics. Absent of any instrumentation at all, Baker’s voice would still be arresting. She’s most effective on tracks like “Televangelist” and “Even,” grappling with doubt, self-worth and God.

More than anything, Turn Out the Lights is about faith. Baker repeatedly addresses a “you” in her lyrics, each time raising her voice until it breaks. In “Shadowboxing,” she offhandedly mentions “singing too loud in church,” which is the exact image her music evokes. It’s highly devotional, giving praise not in spite of Baker’s problems but because of them. Closing track “Claws in Your Back” peaks with that acknowledgement — “I think I can love the sickness you made,” Baker says. It’s achingly genuine.

The rest of the album carries that same candidness, but is sometimes bogged down by melodrama or repetition. Turn Out the Lights is spectacular in its wholehearted declarations of faith but fails to keep those professions fresh over 11 songs. Still, Baker’s passion and talent make for some of the year’s most cathartic moments.

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