Julien Baker shines in the darkness on ‘Turn Out the Lights’
Julian of Norwich wrote that “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Julien Baker wants you to know it’s OK if all is not well.
On her second album, “Turn Out the Lights,” out Friday on Matador Records, the Memphis native’s candid ballads unravel the impact of mental health and pain on personal relationships: with family, with lovers, with friends, with God. Aching, vulnerable, and unsparing in detail, her creations invite you to listen with your whole self and feel along.
Baker, who was raised in a staunchly religious household, is open about being both queer and Christian. She does not define her music as explicitly either of those, but she has become a sort of folk hero to young queer people online. Rachel Syme wrote for the New Yorker that the 22-year-old musician “says that she tries to leave space for God to enter the room whenever she opens up her throat,” and Baker’s voice is that of a repentant rebel angel, hovering at a confessional murmur that blisters in its tenderness, soaring to a raw, bright timbre as she bares her heart with a clarion cry.
“I know that it’s not gonna turn out alright, but I have to believe that it is,” she sings on “Appointments,” layers upon layers of vocals circling round and round each other. Her pain is never romanticized. In little space and few words, she evokes the emptiness of well-meaning advice, the terror of not knowing what your mind will attack you for next, and the fear of being alone with your demons. Like her voice, her lyrics are plain and powerful, emotionally intimate without sentimentality. Hearing them feels almost like an invasion of her privacy.
“When you watch me throwing punches at the devil /it just looks like I’m fighting with me,” she sings on “Shadowboxing.” A relationship that has rotted away is held up to the light on “Sour Breath.” “Hurt Less” is a slow gut punch, spinning out a story of how another’s presence can pull you back just enough from the edge.
Her lyrics here drift on a deeper sonic pool than that of her bare-bones 2015 debut, “Sprained Ankle.” She pulls in hazy strings, expansively minimal Explosions in the Sky-esque guitars, and piano footsteps that fall like the weight of infinity. The instrumentation gently cradles the ears in these incandescent lullabies for sleepless nights. Despair and anxiety may have inspired Baker’s songs, but at its core “Turn Out the Lights” is a hopeful album, if only because the alternative is too awful to imagine. Acknowledging the hurt is the first step to healing.
Baker plays the Somerville Theatre Saturday. The show is sold out, but if you get in, you may want to take along a shirt to cry into.