Turn Out The Lights (Matador/Remote Control)
“When I turn out the lights, there’s no one left between myself and me.”
How has Julien Baker made an album so riven with hurt and despair it could crush, and yet is not harrowing?
How has she fashioned a suite of songs which seem barely burdened with instrumentation or tempos above a resting heartbeat, that still feels fully dressed and never still?
How does she capture mundanity and profundity without tricksing up one and overplaying the other?
Or offer advice that in truth we are alone and what changes will be made around us will happen irrespective of our efforts and not suggest futility?
And yet balance that by showing that all we do ripples unbidden through the lives of those closest to us, without coming across as moralising?
“There’s a hole in the drywall still not fixed, I just haven’t gotten around to it/And besides I’m starting to get used to the gaps.”
It may be that question really is, once you start listening how do you stand back from Turn Out The Lights and not let it invade your life?
That this album isn’t a chronicle of grand tragedy, a florid expression of existential angst, but rather a look at the regular shifts and underfloor displacements that do more than enough damage, is to its ultimate benefit.
While the title track builds to a mini-drama of a climax, the guitars set to shoegaze and the voices expanding to claim more space, most often there are delicate but firm moments of understatement and intimacy.
It’s what makes the album’s toughest moments feel graspable, relatable, as in the drenching final track, Claws In Your Back, a song which clings to you like a woollen coat, its collar upturned against the wind, you hold tight to take every bit of heat it offers.
Here it is the self-questioning, the inner demon if you like, not some grand power or superior force, which is “the violent partner you carry around, with claws in your back, ripping your clothes/And listing your failures out loud”.
Likewise in Appointments, where there’s a glistening in the air from guitars and an earthiness below from the piano, as twin arguments are made: to believe in the failure described by a lover, or the potential offered by another ear, another voice.
A woman of faith but not of blind belief, Baker addresses one song to “the engineer”, the creator of the “faulty circuitry” within her. Looking at the things that aren’t quite working out, she asks “I was just wondering if there was any way that you made a mistake”.
That the song is called Happy To Be Here should not be an excuse to see either sarcasm or painful bonhomie any more than her faith should be an excuse to see acceptance as a given. This is a complex relationship between engineer and the human machine.
“I know I should be being optimistic but I’m doubtful I can change,” she sings, knowing that the what’s being asked of her is to “grit my teeth and try to act deserving”. But is that an option “when I know there’s nowhere I can hide you’re your humiliating grace”?
Still, as the cri-de-coeur within Televangelist confirms, it is the human dimension rather than the divine where Baker has her focus, and where what grace or succour that may be available is sought.
There’s hope here of sorts, maybe it is even an argument against futility. Turn Out The Lights is at the very least an album which binds you to its chest.
“See, I've started wearing safety belts when I'm driving, because when I'm with you I don't have to think about myself/And it hurts less.”
SPOTIFY: Listen to Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights here
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights here