Imagine listening to a happy song by Julien Baker. The concept is so off-brand that it’s novel to think about. With the release of her second album, Turn Out the Lights, 22-year-old Baker has firmly established herself as fundamentally despondent. She’s someone you could easily consider one of your all-time favorite artists — she’s that talented —, and yet hardly ever listen to her music because its heaviness is so affecting.
Turn Out the Lights is the grown-up, still miserable version of its instrumentally-sparse predecessor, Sprained Ankle, which hooked and reeled the vulnerable hearts of listeners upon its release in 2015. It’s a scientific fact that if you give it the proper attention, you can’t listen to the song “Something” without big, ugly tears running down your face and a crippling realization of your own inadequacy and loneliness. Music with that kind of power should be handled carefully; as deserving as it is for our attention and praise, it might be best to file it under “Avoid at All Costs” after an initial listen.
Baker’s inspiration continues to stem mainly from her queer identity, mental illness, faith and underlying fear of rejection. Her lyrics flaunt her masochistic tendencies. “When you watch me throwing punches at the devil/ It just looks like I’m fighting with me,” she acknowledges on “Appointments.” She’s self-aware enough to resentfully call out her “cannibal chest” on the same track, referring to the fact that she feeds her own darkest feelings. The moments she comes closest to optimism coincide with the prospect of someone saying — and meaning — that they love her, when what she really needs is to love herself.
Of course, none of this is to say that the album’s bleakness makes it any less stunning. It’s just an exhausting listen. Sadness has become Baker’s M.O. of sorts, but it’s not what makes her music beautiful. I can only imagine what she’s capable of creating when she’s in a good headspace, how bright she might shine then. There’s got to be at least one happy (Hell, I’d settle for just upbeat) song waiting in the future. As of now, Baker’s mind is a dark room where she turned out the lights and boarded up the windows herself.