The co-opting of “self-acceptance” by modern advertising would lead us to believe it’s a simple, one-step process. “Love Yourself” and “Just Be You” slogans slapped on billboards and shampoo bottles make finding self-worth seem like a final state of being, rather than a constant struggle. We’re conditioned to see two sides—light and dark—when in reality the two intermingle in an infinite number of ways. Light streams through blinds in the morning, strains through our own closed lids, finds gaps between leaves and skyscrapers and clouds; it’s forever being filtered through the world’s opacities. Julien Baker’s sophomore album Turn Out The Lights grasps the messy nuance of this process: the perpetual tug-of-war between habitual self-renunciation and the practice of redemption.
Sprained Ankle, Baker’s humble 2015 debut of sparse bedroom recordings, was met with the critical acclaim and cult-like following rarely received for debut albums with Bandcamp beginnings. It only takes a single listen to prove this recognition wasn’t an anomaly; it’s impossible not to connect and crumble immediately. Baker writes the kind of songs you get hooked on, cancel plans to stay home and listen to, and let wring you out like a dishrag until there’s nothing left. It’s inevitable that they’d snowball into mass appreciation, to some extent. Unlike Turn Out The Lights, the punch of Baker’s debut is its antithesis to acceptance, her belief that she’s irreparably repulsive; “I know I'm a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you'd never touched, but you're gonna run when you find out who I am,” she sings on “Everybody Does.”
Turn Out The Lights certainly isn’t void of this loathing—it never really goes away—but, it’s glued together with traces of hope, Baker’s concerted effort to look at herself with just a bit of light. Beneath the dark ruminations on these tracks, we hear a quiet voice straining to negate them. She took ugly thoughts and emptiness and wrote them into melodies of blessed assurance. Her growth from one album to the next is the growth anyone who’s ever believed they’re damaged goods prays for at night.
Massive yet minimal in instrumentation, Turn Out The Lights remains close and gentle, but fills the volume of a cave—waves of sound that crest slow but break hard. It’s an album of obstacle: Baker stands amongst a pile of internal wreckage, incapacitating thought, missed appointments, and nights that drag into mornings. She dips her hands into the ultimate helplessness of running yourself and everything you love into the ground with your own two hands; “Lord, Lord, Lord, is there some way to make it stop? 'Cause nothing that I do has ever helped to turn it off,” she sings on “Everything That Helps You Sleep.” Each line details the avalanche of watching yourself implode with your arms tied behind your back, yet for 42 minutes, Baker inches forward.
On the title track, she receives the impossible advice often offered to those that struggle with mental illness—“don’t be so hard on yourself”—and asks how everyone seems to do that so easily. But at the song’s climax, her voice becomes unhinged in a way we never saw from Baker on her debut: “When I turn out the lights / there’s no one left between myself and me,” landing at a conclusion that at the end of the day, she’s the only one responsible to deal with who she is. It’s not the satisfying resolution of a full-force self-embrace—the click of the “self-love-switch” we all crave—but Baker’s promise to herself to try.
On “Happy to Be Here,” she asks God if they made a mistake when they made her. It’s a bare-bones song reminiscent of the tracks on Sprained Ankle, just Baker’s voice backed by guitar. Recovered from substance abuse and openly struggling with mental illness, Baker lays out the perfect storm of circumstance and the “faulty circuitry” of her brain. “I can’t be fixed,” she sings later on “Even.” She stands apathetic, deeming herself unworthy; We’re taught that we throw things away when they break, that nobody wants to eat bruised fruit. She imagines herself an electrician, climbing through her ears and rewiring her brain and making a different version of herself that has two cars, a job, and goes to church every Sunday. Despite her doubt, she falls on her knees and resolves to move along: “Grit my teeth and try to act deserving / When I know there's nowhere I can hide / From your humiliating grace.” Not a far cry from her despair on her last album, but she’s learned to let a bit of light in. “It’s a fallacy to believe everyone will run when you tell them who you really are,” she told Stereogum. “I think I can love the sickness you made,” she tells God on the album’s final song.
When she came out at age 17, she told her dad, “I think I’m going to hell,” she said in an interview with Noisey. Raised in Memphis to church-going Christian parents—Baker considers herself nondenominational and still currently practices christianity—she saw some of her gay friends ostracized. But she said her dad spent the next hour convincing her she wasn’t going to hell; her mom assured her God loves her regardless. Being queer and raised in religion often means feeling like your existence is a sin; you either undergo a difficult reconciliation between yourself and your faith in something greater, or abandon it altogether. Either way, at some point, you spend a whole lot of time wishing you were different. In “Televangelist,” she asks if she’s a masochist if the same faith she turns to, in some of its modern manipulated iterations, has the capacity to inflict so much shame. “All my prayers are just apologies / hold out a flair till you come for me / do I turn into light if I burn alive,” she pours out over a gorgeous chorus of church organs. “If I burn in hell for being who I am, like some say I will, do I still turn into light?”
She never seems to completely answer this question, more concerned with scraping for light here on earth. She able to see the smallest shreds of light more clearly than most. In her spot from cosmic-scale darkness, she notices its color on bare skin or the way it streams through a chapel’s stained glass windows. “Hurt Less,” an arresting ballad with piano interludes woven into swelling strings, begins with Baker telling us she never used to see the point in seatbelt:
And when I'm pitched through the windshield /
I hope the last thing that I felt before the pavement /
Was my body float. /
I hope my soul goes too.
The song closes, and Baker tells us she’s now started wearing seatbelt:
Because when I'm with you /
I don't have to think about myself /
And it hurts less.
Beyond all her pain, beyond her destruction, beyond her wish for death, she found someone worth preserving herself for, a cause to pursue the redemption she’s deemed impossible. On Turn Out the Lights, Baker finds blessed assurance: reasons to put her seatbelt on and a promise to keep searching for them through darkness and doubt. “Maybe it's all gonna turn out alright / And I know that it's not, but I have to believe that it is.”