Album Review of "Turn Out The Lights" by Julien Baker
Fighting with Saints and Demons
Almost every reviewer makes a big deal out of how Julien Baker identifies herself as queer and Christian. But is "Turn Out The Lights" a queer Christian album? We analyze the lyrics in this heart-wrenching sophomore album to find out.
Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
Turn Out The Lights by Julien Baker
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Album Review: Turn Out The Lights by Julien Baker
Fighting with Saints and Demons
This is a transcript of Ep. 14 of the What's This Album About? podcast - listen here
BOBBY: Hi everybody. Welcome to What’s This Album About?, the podcast of literary analysis for album lyrics. I'm Bobby Waller
LINDA: and I'm Linda Easton.
BOBBY: And today we're going to be looking at the new album by Julien Baker, Turn Out The Lights.
♪ But when I turn out the lights
When I turn out the lights
When I turn out the lights
LINDA: Julien Baker is a 22-year-old singer-songwriter, guitarist and pianist who is from Memphis, Tennessee, and Turn Out The Lights is her sophomore album.
BOBBY: Linda, you and I have read a lot of articles while we were researching this album, and one of the things I've noticed is that every article mentioned that Julien Baker identifies herself as queer and Christian. It was in every single article. It made me think that that's really important about this album. So, my start-off question to you, Linda, is: is this a queer, Christian album?
LINDA: Even though we know the external context of it, that she's coming out and that she's doing it within a very conservative Christian environment, none of that external context is brought into the album. It's all about her interior conflicts; the conflicts she has within herself and how she's struggling to work those out.
BOBBY: So it is the coming-to-terms album of a woman who identifies herself as both queer and Christian, but the end result is something that is not explicitly either one of those things.
LINDA: Bobby, I have a question for you. Did you cry when you listened to this album?
BOBBY: I cried in a couple places. It's a very emotional album.
LINDA: It is. It's a time in her life when she was very depressed and it's a very painful album to listen to, but Julien Baker has said that she gets the comment a lot that people come up to her after a concert and say, "Thank you very much. I cried." And she used to apologize for that. She felt bad. And then she came to realize that maybe they're working through their own issues and they needed the catharsis of this song. So, even though it's a depressing album, it's worth listening to.
BOBBY: Okay. Well, let's start listening to it.
BOBBY: And let's start with the song we're hearing in the background right now. This is Track 3, the title track, "Turn Out The Lights." And I want to back up to the opening line because Julien Baker writes very good opening lines for all of her songs and I think this is one of the best ones. So let's back it up and give that a little bit of a listen.
♪ There's a hole in the drywall still not fixed
I just haven't gotten around to it
And besides, I'm starting to get used to the gaps
BOBBY: That is such a strong beginning. It's an excellent example of how a good songwriter can say things without saying them. So right away, she references this hole in the drywall and without ever saying so, you get the impression that there's been some drama in her life and that she created that hole in the drywall with her own hands. And then she says it's not fixed because she hasn't gotten around to it. I think that really speaks to the way depression works. Things need to be done, but you can't find the wherewithal to do them.
LINDA: Yeah, in a short amount of time, she really conveys that feeling of what it's like to be depressed. You mention, Bobby, that she writes great opening lines, but she also writes great closing lines.
BOBBY: True that. Let's listen to how this song ends.
♪ When I turn out the lights
There's no one left
Between myself and me
LINDA: I get the sense that she's avoiding being alone with herself because there's some things that she just can't face yet.
BOBBY: That song gives me such a strong sense of how difficult that period of depression must have been in her life, how she can't even stand to turn out the lights because of where her mind will go in the darkness.
LINDA: So that's one of the singles on the album. The other is called "Appointments."
BOBBY: I like how that one starts, too.
♪ I'm staying in tonight
I won't stop you from leaving
I know that I'm not what you wanted. Am I?
LINDA: I love that question in her voice and the way that she sings it. It's just so full of sorrow and regret.
BOBBY: She's very good at communicating her message with her voice. There's a lot of pain in there, a lot of suffering, and I think she's very good at doing these endings that are just these great crescendos of pain.
♪ When I tell you that it is
It's more for my benefit
Maybe it's all going to turn out alright
I know that it's not
But I have to believe that it is
BOBBY: There is such an internal conflict going on there and it's just so raw.
LINDA: Yeah, she's very vulnerable in her songs and her lyrics are just brutally honest.
BOBBY: Speaking of brutality, I think there's a lot of brutality on this album. There are a lot of images of body parts that have been damaged or ravaged. She does a very good job of creating a sense that depression is visceral. It's a physical phenomenon.
LINDA: Yeah, like in this song, "Shadowboxing."
♪ So break me down, folded over your arms
Like an unloaded shotgun
Dismantled and harmless
Because even you couldn't manage
To pull the fuse from the back of my head
BOBBY: Very physical. So she's folded in half like a shotgun and she's got a fuse in her head. Her head is powder keg that's about to explode.
LINDA: There's a lot of references to the chest or the heart, like in this line from "Televangelist."
♪ My heart is going to eat itself
And there's another chest reference in this line from "Everything To Help You Sleep."
♪ What is it like to be empty
Full of only echoes and my body caving in
A cathedral of arching ribs
Heaving out their broken hymns
LINDA: How beautiful!
BOBBY: I agree, but that word "cathedral", that's a Christian word.
LINDA: Yeah, but the Christian references on this album are pretty subtle.
BOBBY: No, right. And let's be clear. None of the songs on this album are ever going to be adapted for a church choir. Ok, so let's start looking at the religious dimension of this album. Let's look at Track 8, "Happy To Be Here."
♪ If I could do what I want I would become an electrician
I'd climb inside my ears and I would rearrange the wires in my brain
LINDA: Okay, so there's more imagery here of opening up a body part and being inside.
BOBBY: And seeing that it's made up of things that it shouldn't be made up of.
♪ Diagram of faulty circuitry explains how I was made
Now the engineer is listening as I voice all my complaints
LINDA: Who do you think the engineer is?
BOBBY: That sounds like God to me.
BOBBY: So she conceives of God as a creator deity, and God made her, but God made her messed up.
LINDA: In fact, the last line of that verse is:
♪ I was just wondering if there's any way that you made a mistake
BOBBY: That's pretty bold. She's clearly not writing from a conservative Christian perspective where God is infallible. However, she does seem to depict God as good. This song has one of my favorite lines from the entire album on it. It goes like this:
♪ Grit my teeth and try to act deserving
When I know there's nowhere I can hide from your humiliating grace
BOBBY: What an incredible phrase, humiliating grace.
LINDA: Yeah, I think this line shows how deep her depression actually goes to where she feels undeserving of God's grace.
BOBBY: And humiliated by it because it's humiliating to have to be the recipient of charity all the time.
LINDA: Yeah, there's a lot of pain on this album.
♪ The why, then why, then why not me?
LINDA: So, Bobby remember the last review we did and we were talking about St. Vincent's Mass Seduction?
♪ Mass seduction
I can't turn off what turns me on
And that also was a very depressing album. And there didn't seem to be a glimmer of hope.
♪ You and me, we weren't meant for this world
The difference between these two albums is that Julien Baker does kind of extend a glimmer of hope at the end of this album.
BOBBY: Okay, let's look at that.
♪ I used to never wear a seatbelt because I said I didn't care what happened
I didn't see the point of trying to save myself from an accident
BOBBY: This is the ninth of the eleven tracks on this album and it's called "Hurt Less."
LINDA: So, it starts in despair.
BOBBY: Again, it's a really vivid glimpse into her pain.
LINDA: But it does end on a more hopeful note.
♪ This year I started wearing safety belts when I'm driving
Because when I'm with you I don't have to think about myself
And it hurts less
LINDA: This song really hit home for me and I have to confess that I did cry when I heard this song because as you know, Bobby, last year I was really in the depths of depression. And I did do what she does in this song. I imagined ways that I could die and I didn't care if I wore a safety belt. But you were the person in the car with me and you were the one who was there and made it hurt less.
BOBBY: Yeah. Yeah. I'm glad you're still here, Linda. You know, of all the albums that we've reviewed on this show, this is the one that I have re-listened to the least. And that's because for me, this album is pretty depressing, but you seemed to have a very different reaction to this album.
LINDA: For me it was a catharsis. I knew that she knew what it was like in that dark place. And even though I never want to go back there again, it was in a way healthy for me to go back and revisit it through her song.
BOBBY: I think her music is cathartic for a lot of people.
LINDA: Yeah. And it's cheaper than therapy!
BOBBY: Right! So let's wrap this up by looking at the last song of the album, "Claws In Your Back."
♪ Nobody knows the violent partner you carry around
With claws in your back, ripping your clothes
Listing your failures out loud
BOBBY: I just love that line. I like that she uses the term "violent partner you carry around," like this part of herself that says these negative things about herself is almost a different person, like she can't control it. And it's violent. It's making a mess of her life. And then toward the end of the song, she starts to bring it around and you get the feeling that she's staring to work some things out.
♪ I'm better off learning how to be
Living with demons I've mistaken for saints
BOBBY: That's another one of my favorite lines in this album: "demons I've mistaken for saints." l grew up in a religion that really thrived on guilt. So I understand that feeling of the saints being the voice of conscience inside you telling you what you're doing is wrong. But I also understand what it's like for those voices to go a little too far and make you feel guilty and bad about yourself all the time, to the point that those voices are really the voices of demons.
LINDA: Actually she says they're really one in the same.
BOBBY: Right. Her take on this is that the voices of conscience that tell you you're wrong, that was bad, are both saints and demons. There's something good and something bad about them. That seems to be her theology that God gives us the good and the bad together.
LINDA: That's why she says this:
♪ I think I can love the sickness you made
BOBBY: That's oddly beautiful.
LINDA: I agree.
BOBBY: And so is the very ending of this song.
♪ So I take it all back
I've changed my mind
I wanted to stay
I wanted to stay
LINDA: Hey, Bobby?
LINDA: The next album we review, could it be a happy album?
BOBBY: Okay! I'm all for that. And that, dear listeners, sounds like a segue to a closer. Thank you for being here with us.
LINDA: And if you know of somebody who would enjoy this podcast, please share it with them.
BOBBY: Until next time, I'm Bobby Waller,
LINDA: and I'm Linda Easton,
BOBBY: reminding you to...
LINDA: wear your seatbelt!
BOBBY: That's it! And to keep your ears open because the more you listen…