It’s impossible to hear the cacophony happening inside other people’s minds. What we present to the world is usually misleadingly placid. The 22-year-old songwriter Julien Baker sees this not so much as an impossibility as a challenge to reconcile, daring her to make music in which she turns herself inside out. Her songs are sparse, internally focused, and radically intimate. “I know that you don’t understand, ’cause you don’t believe what you don’t see,” she sings on “Shadowboxing,” a particularly arresting song off her new album, Turn Out the Lights. “When you watch me throwing punches at the devil, it just looks like I’m fighting with me.” When I heard this song for the first time, I was so struck by that lyric that I rewound the track about 10 seconds, just to marvel at it—so simply, efficiently cutting, like an emotional X-Acto knife.
Baker has a tattoo that snakes around her wrists proclaiming, “Dios Exists.” Her music is a deeply personal amalgamation of punkish, DIY aesthetics and the language of the devotional. “Lord, lord, lord, is there some way to make it stop?” she sings on one of these songs, accompanied by only a solemn, echoing piano. “And everything supposed to help me sleep at night, don’t help me sleep at night anymore.” References to prayer and Ambien coexist in that celebration of the sacred and profane.
Because it focuses largely on depression and because her voice sometimes comes out in an angsty, breaking-point yelp, Baker’s music is sometimes classified as “emo.” But her perspective is expansive enough that the genre doesn’t feel like a limitation; if anything, she illuminates the “emo” sensibility that’s already so present in other things around us. In a recent profile, she told The New York Times that she draws songwriting inspiration from hymns because “despite being antiquated modes of worship—maybe—they contain these really emotive phrases. All my favorite hymns are admissions of faults, and finding redemption even in those.” Last year she told a different interviewer, “I love Hank Williams, he’s the original emo kid. Some of his lyrics remind me of, like, Promise Ring lyrics.”
Baker’s songs are relentlessly sad but bleakly hopeful, if only for the reason that, if we are listening to them, it means she’s at least mustered the strength to sing them aloud. “Suggest that I talk to somebody again,” she sings on the devastating first single, “who knows how to help me get better and until then I should just try not to miss any more appointments.” The sound of isolation befits lyrics like these, and Baker (who produced the new album herself) usually populates her songs with little more than a piano or gently strummed electric guitar. Her finger-picking technique tends to favor the higher strings, which gives her playing a flickering, lightning-bug quality—a dash of incandescence that keeps her songs from growing too inert.
Baker has struggled with depression and addiction, and in her songs she finds poetry in the language of therapy, medications, and recovery programs. Turn Out the Lights is about the kind of paralysis that prevents one from achieving even the smallest victories, like getting a good night’s sleep, leaving the house, or finally getting around to fixing that nagging hole in the drywall. “I’ve done so well this week,” she sings on “Sour Breath,” which is the sort of thing a person notes only when the opposite is true.
Does this all make her music sound unbearably dark? Fair enough. Like its wrenching predecessor, Baker’s 2015 debut album, Sprained Ankle, Turn Out the Lights can be a difficult place to spend time, simply because it is so unrelentingly raw. Baker’s gloomy gleam occasionally reminds me of the (great) early Cat Power records, although those albums still had singles that you could (languidly) nod along to, like the feel-bad-hits-of-the-summer “Nude as the News” and “Cross Bones Style.” Even Elliott Smith once wrote a song called “Happiness.” Baker’s laser focus on pain and trauma can sometimes make her music feel monochromatic over the stretch of an entire album. There’s plenty reason to believe that she’ll add more colors to her palette over time, though, especially given the huge leap in artistry and confidence she’s achieved in the two short years since Sprained Ankle. She’s a precocious talent, and she’s only getting better.
Baker was raised Christian in a religious if somewhat unorthodox home. When she was 17, she worked up the courage to tell her family she was gay. Rather than disowning her, her father took out a Bible and showed her passages in scripture that proved that it was OK and that she would not be condemned to hell. For some people, coming out is a step toward abandoning religion; for Baker, it was an opportunity to deepen her faith and begin to ask more complicated questions of God.
“Because I had … the option to come out in a non-traditional church,” Baker said in an interview last year, “all these things happened to show me that sexuality is not one-sided, and neither is religion, and neither is the path to reconciling those things.” That reconciliation is the spirited conversation we get to overhear in her music: searching, questioning, and above all things believing that there is more to life than can be glimpsed on the immediate surface or gleaned from easy answers. Turn Out the Lights may be somber, but it’s also a reminder that light is not always a good thing; too much of it can be blinding. Julien Baker, so incisively, can see in the dark.