Julien Baker—Turn Out the Lights
RT: 2, 3, 5, 7
Release Date: 10/27/17
I’ve been dealing with depression a lot lately. Since probably my sophomore year of undergrad, I’ve dealt with on and off bouts of depression and anxiety. I feel like I’ve been able to handle them pretty well, and the feelings usually pass the relatively soon after they come on for me, but I’ve still been there and I know how low those lows can feel. The past few months have brought on a few more lows than usual as I’ve settled into my first semester as a PhD student in Bloomington. I’ve done the “uproot your life, move across the country, and escalate the academic difficulty” thing a few times now, and that first year or so has always been a bit more emotionally fragile for me, but this year has been especially rough. Rochester was the hardest place for me to leave yet, because I’d developed a real home community there; I’m doing a long-distance relationship, and even though it’s completely worth it, it’s also so draining having to put so much scheduling and effort into even being able to talk with my girlfriend on a regular basis; My mother and my grandmother have both been dealing with cancer, with this being my mom’s third round with cancer. It’s been a whole lot to deal with, and under my usual cheery, chipper smile have been more nights than I’d care to count when I’m having a panic attack at 4AM as I try to fall asleep. I’ve spent most of my life living with depression around me as well. My mom has spent most of my life that I can remember battling with depression. I can think of so many times where some random action or inaction on my part would set off what seemed like a hair-trigger wave of emotions from her that would turn into a confrontation that would almost always leave her in tears and saying she felt worthless and like nobody cared about her and me feeling guilty, bitter, and confused about the whole thing, especially when I was younger. Since I’ve gotten older and realized what depression is and how it works, I’ve done my best to avoid things that will upset her and be more considerate toward her and her requests (as one should try and do for one’s mother), but I’m still occasionally an idiot screw-up, and those explosions still happen from time to time. My girlfriend has just recently come to terms with the fact that she does have pretty bad anxiety and depression, and I’ve been doing the best I can to support her as she gets the help she needs to get everything under some degree of control. We have a healthy, happy relationship, and I do my best to let her know how much I care about her whenever I can, but we’ve still had so many conversations (especially since we’ve been at a distance) that, no matter what I say to try and help, end up with her saying she feels like she’s worthless, or that she’s an anchor dragging me down and I deserve someone better, or that she deserves to be miserable and punished as retribution for some unknown, undefined cosmic misdeed. I’m going into all of this (uncomfortable for me) personal detail to say that I have never experienced an entire album that addresses depression as bluntly and honestly and so closely reflecting my lived experiences with depression as Julien Baker does on Turn Out the Lights.
Let’s take a step back from the heavy stuff and breathe for a second. Musically, this album is stunning. Sprained Ankle, Baker’s debut outing, was a masterclass in effective minimalism, but here she opens up her sound quite a bit by adding quite a few more instruments and effects to her sound, expanding it from her basic guitar or piano plus vocals combination. While this expansion and refinement may not be to all of her fans’ taste (that basically describes my relationship with Waxahatchee’s work post-American Weekend), I think the new sound is a welcome addition because it gives Baker additional tools to build, explore, and represent the powerful emotions in her songwriting. Her powerful voice is still her biggest musical asset, partially because she sounds stunning and partially because her voice is so emotive. You can hear the sadness and disaffection that tends to sit at depression’s baseline, but she’s also fantastic at getting across the pleading frustration and anger of having to live like that, of trying to communicate with people when you only feel nothing, of trying to break free of its grasp but not being able to when she escalates her vocals to what is, at times, a musical scream. Her vocals are completely emotionally honest in a way few musicians can manage.
Now that we’ve established what depression sounds like musically, let’s dig in to what really makes this album a (almost literally for me) breathtaking masterpiece: the lyrics. If you or someone you’re close to (especially a significant other) has depression, you’re going to immediately recognize the conversations Baker is having in these songs. And I say conversations here because that’s exactly what these songs are. She’s talking with someone, explaining her feelings and condition, in every single one of these songs, whether it’s a lover or God or even just talking with herself. These are the conversations that come to dominate and define life with depression, that happen daily or weekly or monthly or constantly, and I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of these conversations. “Hurt Less” is the one I identify with most personally, because blatant self-disregard for myself and my wellbeing, followed by a complete breakdown to whoever it is that can be there for me, is how my depression has usually manifested. “Appointments,” “Sour Breath,” and “Happy to Be Here” are all conversations I’ve regularly been on the receiving end of recently. My girlfriend was telling me when she listened to this album that “Turn Out the Lights,” “Shadowboxing,” and “Claws In Your Back” were able to articulate how she’s been feeling trying to deal with depression, and the constant inner turmoil and struggle it causes, in a way she’s constantly trying but unable to do. I think that might be the best way to describe what this album accomplishes: it’s able to describe depression in a clear, understandable, emotionally honest way that can give a voice to those dealing with it and a reference point for those trying to understand it.
Even though the lyrics are unmistakably devastating and brutal, many of the songs and the album as a whole actually end up being extremely cathartic and hopeful. A lot of the catharsis comes from Baker’s emotive voice that I mentioned earlier. When her songs build to a crescendo and her voice escalates to that trembling yell, it becomes a point of pure emotional release. For her, it may be frustration and anger, but for the listener it’s a burst piercing through the fog of depression that can let loose whatever emotions need to come out. It’s the musical equivalent of letting out a massive scream, or throwing things around a room, or punching a wall. Having moments of release like that are what usually help me get back in a better emotional place, and Baker’s are masterfully constructed. The album itself ends up being hopeful because every song ends up turning into a message of solidarity. With how clearly Baker is able to express these common feelings, it can really let someone know that they’re not alone in feeling this way, and sometimes realizing that it’s not just you who feels like this, and that you’re not uniquely being tortured by some extremely cruel whim of the universe, but that there are people who have common experiences and can relate to what you’ve gone through and that (however grudgingly you may go to them) resources exist to help you cope and get better can be a massive breakthrough. Don’t get me wrong, this album hits like an emotional sack of bricks, and it will almost assuredly make you cry when you listen to it, just from the sheer power of the emotions involved, but it will leave you feeling a little bit more okay with where your life is at the moment by the time you’re done listening to it. This final combination of musical beauty, emotional honesty and clarity, and hope is what makes this album so uniquely powerful and one of the very rare perfect albums I’ve ever come across.