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Julien Baker + Tancred

Julien Baker’s 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, came seemingly out of nowhere. Although it was initially released independently on Bandcamp, the album’s quiet power would not be contained—soon, far more than just Baker’s friends and DIY-touring acquaintances were encountering her songs. With Sprained Ankledisarmingly honest and subtly illustrative in its sonic confessions of despair and loss, ugliness and regret, spiritual exhaustion and flickering faith—Julien Baker showed to herself to be a rare artist, one whose combination of artistry and immediacy profoundly undoes audiences, causing them to feel existentially heard in the act of hearing her.

On her sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights (2017), Baker has not lost its balance of uncommon gracefulness and jarring intimacy. But this is a different work: while Sprained Ankle “screams with holy noise” about the forlorn conditions of mental illness, addiction and tragedy, Turn Out the Lights is an attempt respond to the despair named by the previous album with a desperately shouted (read: prayed) choosing of provisional hope.

“Over,” a short instrumental overture to the album, wordlessly foreshadows the narrative dynamic of Turn Out the Lights—from minor key to major, from quicksand despair to the clutching of hope. This overture bleeds directly into the album’s first full song, “Appointments,” which emphatically rounds out the wordless arc of the former in its rallying cry of hopeful contradiction:

“Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright
I know that it’s not but I have to believe that it is”

These lyrics are at the thematic crux of Turn Out the Lights: choosing hope in contradiction of the realistic while still naming the despairing precedent of the realistic. Baker commented to Pitchfork, “...maybe the bad and ugly things are part of me, but I don’t have to submit to them.” The denying of submission to despair is reaching into the provision of hope is believing against belief in an unrealistic reality.

That unrealistic reality might be called grace. On “Happy to Be Here,” Baker calls into question the unrealistic reality of grace, pointedly identifying how it does not comport with the realistic reality of seemingly unfixable illness, struggle and pain. She asks the creator whom she praised amidst the turbulence of Sprained Ankle’s “Rejoice”:

“I was just wondering
If there’s any way that you made a mistake?”

Here, Baker plainly questions grace for its unrealistic-ness when her reality seemingly amounts to insurmountable messed up-ness. She presses further:

“Well, I heard there’s a fix for everything
Then why, then why, then why Then why not me?”

This is a fair question, really. If all apparent reality communicates an exemption from the unrealistic reality, the “fix,” of grace, Baker is just asking why grace can’t seem to encompass her. But maybe this is the wrong way to ask these questions, to interrogate her reality in the face of the unrealistic reality of which she’s been told. Perhaps the picture is bigger:

“Grit my teeth and try to act deserving
When I know that there is nowhere I can hide
From your humiliating grace”

Here, she lands on the unrealistic-ness of grace: it is in the mess. This profoundly inverts the song’s question, creating one of the album’s most tremendous moments:

“And if there’s enough left after everyone else
Then why, then why, then why
Then why not me?”

The final “then why not me?” of “Happy to Be Here,” might as well be the thesis of Turn Out the Lights. With the power of poetic compression, it encapsulates the record’s dynamic move from the realistic reality of messed up-ness to messing up the unrealistic reality of messed up-ness infused with grace. This is the hard-to-see hope invoked on “Appointments.” And it foreshadows the final lyrics of the album-closer, “Claws in Your Back,” which Baker says serves as a here-and-now hope antithesis to Sprained Ankle’s final track, “Go Home”:

“I think I can love
The sickness you made
‘Cause I take it all back
I change my mind
I wanted to stay”

Julien Baker’s work is uncommonly graceful in its ugly honesty. It embodies the unrealistic reality of grace about which she sings by bringing listeners into a space that grants them permission to seek that contradictory reality as it is illustrated in her songs. This work, in its quiet intimacy and unsentimental sincerity, is necessary and timely in a disingenuously distanced, whirling world of noisy desperation. Hopefully she is just beginning.

—Daniel Hickey 

Read an interview and track-by-track dissection of her new album.
Read a reflection on "Claws in Your Back" by poet, music critic, and Festival of Faith & Music presenter Hanif Abdurraqib.

April 2018
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