Her Matador Records debut, Turn Out the Lights is the much-anticipated follow-up to the ruminating 2015 breakthrough of Tennessee singer/songwriter Julien Baker. While Sprained Ankle was recorded in a professional studio in Richmond, Virginia, it was with help from a friend who was interning there, and Baker, an 18-year-old college freshman at the time, was the sole performer. Unexpectedly -- to the songwriter -- it was picked up by 6131 Records and eventually made Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart in 2016. She recorded 2017's Turn Out the Lights at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, emerging with a sturdier sound and accompaniment that includes not only guitar and piano but also strings, woodwinds, and additional vocals. The album even opens with a brief chamber overture that both sets a melancholy tone and establishes the expanded sound. Still, it's an intimate, drums-free affair, one that emphasizes lyrics and raw emotion. The candid content and intense vocal delivery that made her reputation continue -- her lyrics dwell on personal struggles and the pursuit of hope, as on lead single "Appointments." It compromises with "Maybe it's all gonna turn out all right/And I know that it's not but I have to believe that it is." That song makes a spare anthem of "I have to believe that it is" with mainly piano and arpeggiated electric guitar. When churning, echoing guitar kicks in later on "Turn Out the Lights," it underscores full-voiced howling that reaches a level not heard on her debut. The record returns repeatedly to these swelling, anthemic moments in between more weary, half-murmured ones. At times, the smoother production seems at odds with Baker's brittle delivery, such as on "Sour Breath," which ends with a belted solo vocal. It's a heavy album, regardless, with remarks like "I know what’s in my cannibal chest" and songs like "Hurt Less," a piano-and-strings entry that recounts why Baker didn't used to and then started wearing a seatbelt. Cathartic and wrecked, Turn Out the Lights is the type of album that will be uncommonly relatable to some and unbearable to others. For those who are receptive, the songwriter's ferocious authenticity connects in spite of, rather than in concert with, the more dramatic accompaniment here.
AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson