When Julien Baker pads softly to the center of the stage at Town Hall, it seems as if she thinks no one will notice. But they do — applause erupts throughout the renowned venue, with whoops and hollers springing out from various seats. She smiles sheepishly, but says nothing before beginning to pluck the strings of her steel-blue Telecaster. The first notes of “Appointments” ring out, the lead single off her sophomore album, “Turn Out the Lights” — released that day to critical acclaim.
When Baker released her first album, the quietly devastating “Sprained Ankle,” on Bandcamp, she didn’t expect anyone to listen. But the songs — and Baker, who has developed a reputation for writing music that makes people cry — quickly garnered attention due to their simple honesty about the most complex human experiences. The music is cathartic in its shattering lyrics and desperate vocals — it allows listeners to wallow in their sadness, while also inherently reminding them to take solace in the fact that they are not alone. Baker’s voice confronts us with the reality that although our experiences are unique, they are not singular.
Sonically, the orchestration has concretized since the first record. Several tracks build until the climax of the song, at which point Baker sings in the upper register of her voice. In this moment, she seems to let the song go — the orchestration climbs along with her vocals, which have strengthened in confidence since “Sprained Ankle.” The listener feels like they have achieved some sense of euphoria; they have reached an awakening, and Baker has aided them in getting there. When Baker reaches these notes during the live performance, she awes an audience already stunned into absolute silence.
Though Baker’s characteristic twinkling guitar melodies are still present, much of the record is grounded in piano. Strings and woodwinds help the tracks sound bigger, while simultaneously amplifying the isolation and longing often present in her raw and cerebral lyrics. Layers of Baker’s vocals create an echo-chamber which bombards listeners with her voice as thoughts can envelop one’s mind. In “Appointments,” multiple vocal tracks sound from near and far, singing contrasting statements. There’s the poignant phrase, “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right, and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is,” which splits into competing thoughts of “I know that it’s not” and “I have to believe it,” presenting the two sides of existence that those with mental illness often experience. The layered harmonies work to build an empty space around the listener. It feels as if we are sharing a room with Baker’s psyche, a space through which we can confront our own.
While “Sprained Ankle” grappled with self-worth and the uncertainties surrounding what makes life worth enduring, “Turn Out the Lights” stands as a pillar of resilience to those destructive thoughts. When the set concludes, Baker invites onto the stage the women of her supporting acts — Kiley Lotz of Petal, Nandi Rose Plunkett of Half Waif and Camille Faulkner, who accompanied Baker on violin. The four gather around a single microphone. In perfect harmony, they launch into a rendition of “Good News.” The unity of the performance contrasts the sense of isolation of the “Sprained Ankle” track about believing you ruin everything you do. But surrounded by her friends, it is clear that Baker wishes to impart on her audience a single message: you are not alone.
When they finish, a crew member walks on stage with a sheet-cake garnished with birthday candles to congratulate Baker on her album release. The 22-year-old beams with genuine surprise along with her audience, who, despite spending just over an hour singing along to intensely melancholic music, is overcome by joy. This is what Baker hopes to achieve with her sad songs — a resounding sense of hope.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 30 print edition.
Email Annabel Paulsen at [email protected]