The last two years have taken Memphis songwriter Julien Baker from the campus of Middle Tennessee State University to Matador Records and the national stage. It is a testament to the strength of her promising debut (2015's Sprained Ankle) and shows how quickly the twenty-two-year-old has evolved into a songwriting force. When Baker released "Appointments," the first single from Turn Out The Lights, it was then I knew that she had arrived. It is the kind of song that has the ability to stop you in your tracks. Near the four minute mark of "Appointments," Baker launches into the most powerful vocal performance I have heard in 2017. I have lost track of how many times I have listened to this song, yet it still retains its staying power.
Some listeners may lament that Turn Out The Lights lacks the lo-fi atmosphere of Sprained Ankle, but I would argue that this is for the best. Recording at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis afforded Baker the opportunity to truly showcase the range of her voice. The twinkling, reverb-drenched guitar of Baker's debut remains intact, but Turn Out The Lights features a wider sonic palette. Baker's piano is more prominent and she is accompanied on a handful of tracks by violinist Camille Faulkner. The biggest payoff for this more sophisticated approach comes on "Hurt Less," a track that rivals "Appointments" in its beauty.
Baker is to be admired for the candor in which she has spoken about her personal life. In interviews, she has touched on her sexuality, addiction, mental health, and her experience as a Christian. This honesty continues to shine through in the imagery of her songs. There is no doubt that the intimacy of her lyrics has played a large part in her success. You are unlikely to hear many songwriters express skepticism over what "evangelicals say on TV" in such a clever way like Baker does on "Happy To Be Here." I think David Bazan would be proud.
On the week that Baker's album was released, she appeared on CBS This Morning to perform several songs. It felt like a small victory. It showed that great songwriting still has the ability to break through the noise. In these tumultuous times that means a great deal to me. We need more artists like Julien Baker in this world and I am so excited to see what she has to offer next. Turn Out The Lights is the brave step forward I had hoped for.
Photo courtesy of Nolan Knight