When Julien Baker quietly recorded her debut EP Musicover a break from classes in 2015, her assumption was that only her family and a few friends would ever hear it. She couldn’t have been more wrong; two years later, Julien is touring Europe and North America with the release of her second album Turn Out the Lights, with fans across the world eating up every last concert and interview they can find.
The emotional intensity of Baker’s fans is mirrored in her music. Sprained Ankle is a vulnerable, quiet, and personal record, telling tales of her own troubles with mental health, substance abuse, and a crisis of faith. There’s no overture or backing band here; the only sounds are the ambient twang of Baker’s guitar (and piano, on one track), and her lonesome, beautiful voice. The openness of her lyrics is perhaps the biggest (and most welcome) shock: ‘I wish I could write songs about anything other than death’, she pines on Sprained Ankle’s title track, an open admission of her faults and troubles. ‘Good News’ and ‘Everybody Does’ deal with a crippling fear of failure, and fan favourite ‘Something’ is a harrowing lament to the end of a relationship.
What gives Baker’s music its heart is that there’s a ray of hope shining through it all. In the middle of the album are two songs, ‘Rejoice’ and ‘Vessels’, that proudly declare Julien’s devotion to her Christian faith, and the happiness that grants her. Note, Julien is both Christian and openly gay, In interviews, she has often told the story of coming out to her parents, and how the first thing her father did was reach for a Bible and read to her every passage he could find that proves that she is loved and accepted. Even on the closing track ‘Go Home’, which paints her at perhaps her lowest point, she lets hope ring through by finally asking for help to get onto her feet.
It’s moments like these than Baker’s fans connect with. Her music feels at times like a long, deep hug from someone who really understands why you need one. When you take that into a live setting, something truly magical happens. Perhaps it’s the deep connection fans have to her music; perhaps it’s Baker’s diy roots of playing house shows for friends. But there’s a sense of community at a Julien Baker concert that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. In a performance setting like this, songs almost become hymns, and the show almost a communion. The crowd has a delicate and polite way of singing along; loud enough to be heard, but soft enough to keep her performance shining through, as if they don’t want to interrupt her. It’s spine-chillingly incredible to listen to that low chorus of the crowd beneath Baker’s powerful performance.
Between songs, Baker lightens the mood by responding to shouts from the crowd, and telling bad jokes (at her recent Toronto concert, she responded to ‘Jesus Christ’ with ‘what about him?’). The levity between the heartache of her music might feel a little forced or out of place in less talented hands, but like everything Julien does, it feels genuine. When she walks onto the stage, her small frame dwarfed by the venue, she’s met with a rapturous applause that visibly moves her. But it takes just one note for her to silence them all, and sweep them up in her performance.
Baker’s new record Turn Out the Lights was released October 27. Sprained Ankle is a tough act to follow, and it seems she’s decided to make use of the wider range of resources she has available. Long time friends Camille Faulkner and Matthew Gilliam contribute strings and vocals respectively on certain tracks, Sorority Noise’s Cameron Boucher helped engineer the album, and the compositions are more complex, but without sacrificing the vulnerable, heartfelt core of her music. If Sprained Ankle felt like was trapped with her demons in a small room, Turn Out the Lights feels like she’s gotten lost in a much grander space amongst them. It’s powerful, it’s beautiful, and more so than its predecessor, it’s hopeful. Julien Baker is one of the most important voices of our generation, and Turn Out the Lights is one of the most beautiful works of art our generation has produced.