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Julien Baker’s solo debut, Sprained Ankle, was one of the most widely acclaimed works of 2015. The album, recorded by an 18-year-old and her friend in only a few days, was a bleak yet hopeful, intimate document of staggering experiences and grace, centered entirely around Baker’s voice, guitar, and unblinking honesty. Sprained Ankle appeared on year-end lists everywhere from NPR Music to The AV Club to New York Magazine’s Vulture.
With Turn Out The Lights, the now 21-year-old Baker returns to a much bigger stage, but with the same core of breathtaking vulnerability and resilience. From its opening moments — when her chiming, evocative melody is accompanied by swells of strings — Turn Out The Lights throws open the doors to the world without sacrificing the intimacy that has become a hallmark of her songs. The album explores how people live and come to terms with their internal conflict, and the alternately shattering and redemptive ways these struggles play out in relationships. Baker casts an unflinching and accepting eye on the duality of – and contradictions in – the human experience, at times even finding humor and joy in the midst of suffering. She ultimately calls on her listeners to move beyond “good” and “bad,” or “happy” and “sad,” to embrace more complex truths.
The album was recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios in her hometown of Memphis, TN, and mixed by Craig Silvey (The National, Florence & the Machine, Arcade Fire). This evolution from Sprained Ankle’s intentionally spare production allowed greater scope and freedom for Baker, who is still the album’s sole writer and producer. Strings and woodwinds now shade the corners of her compositions, and Baker takes to piano rather than guitar on several tracks. In songs like the epic “Claws In Your Back,” these new textures push Baker’s work to cinematic heights of intensity.
As always, the real draw is her songwriting and lyricism. Turn Out The Lights is more expansive in sound and vision than Sprained Ankle and illustrates significant growth, yet the album retains the haunting delicacy of her heartbreakingly confessional style. Where her debut focused inward on Baker’s life and aspects of her identity (female, queer, Christian), Turn Out The Lights reflects on not only her own experiences, but also the experiences of those closest to her. The result finds Baker narrating a deliberate meditation on how we each try to deal with our ever-shifting mental health, and the impact this can have on both ourselves and others. The album sets out to address how the process of coping with internal conflicts affects different relationships – romantic, familial, and friendly. Baker turns outward to embrace the challenges of the human experience, weaving personal struggles together into one surprisingly hopeful chorus.
The album is bookended by “Appointments” and “Claws in Your Back,” two songs that deal with the precarious balance between nihilism and realism. “A lot of stuff happened in my life that was rapid change, and it felt like it could not get any worse,” Baker says of “Appointments.” “I was like, I have reached critical mass for this amoeba of sadness and it cannot possibly turn out all right. But for the sake of my continuing to exist, I have to believe that it will.”
The resulting song (“I think if I ruin this, then I know I can live with it,” Baker sings) cuts to the core of Baker’s uniquely clear-eyed take on human suffering. She resists facile conclusions and never glamorizes the extremes she depicts; yet she continually holds out the possibility of joy and solidarity. On “Claws In Your Back,” she turns her own hard-won determination to thrive into a rallying cry for her friends (“I think I can love the sickness you made. I take it all back, I change my mind. I wanted to stay”).
Even as Turn Out The Lights explores broken relationships (“Sour Breath”), the search for a cure that may not exist (“Everything To Help You Sleep”), and the impossibility of ever truly understanding each other (“Shadowboxing”), Baker continually returns to the possibility of joy. “I don’t believe in the ‘fixing’ part, where what healing means is that you no longer get sad or experience grief or have panic attacks,” Baker says. “Happy is kind of a fleeting and transient emotion. It is not a destination that you can get to by exerting enough mental effort. I believe that joy is something that you can invite into your present circumstance. Whereas happiness seems to be this horizon that’s eternally getting further from you, joy is something that you can inhabit.”
It’s this call to joy even in moments of otherwise total darkness that makes her music a refuge for her fans. Turn Out The Lights is ultimately a healing experience, and it’s impossible not to feel Baker’s unyielding compassion for the messy and beautiful human experience. “When I talk about things in myself I find ugly and unlovable, they are the most effective tools for connecting with other people, for helping other people heal,” she says. “And that helps me heal.”
Don’t let the somber tone of her music fool you: the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has a sunny disposition.
“I’d hate for someone to think I’m sipping an espresso somewhere judging people or feeling sorry for myself. OK, I definitely do that once in a while, but I don’t consider myself an intense person.”
Bridgers grew up in the rose-colored city of Pasadena, attending the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts to study music. From an early age, she found encouragement from a close-knit artistic community of friends and family to follow her dreams, and at school she forged relationships that would teach her as much about her craft as her classes.
“I think most of my musical education had to do with being around a ton of teenagers who listened to music all the time,” she says. “At school I had classical training for my voice, but I think being surrounded by people who were really enthusiastic about art and going to concerts all the time was the real education.”
“I met Carla Azar of Autolux – and she showed me Elliott Smith for the first time, which was my first personal connection to music that one of my parents hadn’t showed me,” she says. “It seemed so different from anything I’d listened to before. It is so personal, so intense.” Bridgers’ work would be heavily influenced by Smith’s sparse lyrics and subdued emotional style, in addition to that of her other favored singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen.
“Los Angeles is interwoven into my music inherently,” she says. “I don’t necessarily try to reference it, but because I’m pulling from experience it just appears. A lot of shit goes down wherever you may grow up.” After graduating from high school, Bridgers spent a year gigging around the city, playing as often as she could, making mistakes and learning while on her feet. “I’ve always been very appreciative of the LA thing,” she says.
But of course the truth is that the unique ingredient at play, the calling card that has drawn all this interest and intrigue, is simply Bridgers’ music itself. Her powerful, lilting voice and her haunting, introspective songs light the torch that shows the way, and are what have inspired artists like Ryan Adams to produce her 2015 single, or Julien Baker to bring her on tour in 2016, as well as John Doe and Conor Oberst to sing with her on her debut album. There is a delicate balance to her work, a dance between veiled narratives and earnest emotions, between whispers and shouts. And according to Bridgers, everything you hear has arrived by feeling; her music is what comes when she is at her most honest, without specific intention, and she aims to be in her songs the person she is in the world.
Stranger in the Alps opens with the one-two punch of “Smoke Signals” and “Motion Sickness,” a pair of songs that highlight Bridgers’ abilities. The former, a gorgeous, ethereal tune guided by sparse electric guitar and sweeping strings, toes the line between weary and wistful, using specific anecdotes from its singer to tell its tale. The style highlights the strengths of Bridgers’ unique lyric writing perspective: there are overt references to lost idols, canonical pop songs and actual incidents, but her stories unfold through precise, evocative imagery sung in her subtle, confessional style. The latter is perhaps the most upbeat moment on the album and was written on her baritone guitar and discusses a problematic relationship from her past. “I feel like I’m getting more focused when I write,” she says. “My songs are super personal.”
“Scott Street” is a song inspired by East Los Angeles where Bridgers now lives. “Killer” is a song originally appearing on her Adams-produced single but is re-recorded here by the album’s producer, Tony Berg, with John Doe singing alongside Bridgers. That song in particular inspired her to be more honest in her approach. “I wanted to be more genuine with my lyrics, and to me that meant being self-deprecating or a little more self-aware, and not using words that just sounded pretty,” she says. “I had an epiphany that I can be honest with myself and with other people when I’m writing.”
Elsewhere, Conor Oberst joins her for the duet “Would You Rather,” a singer chosen for his unmistakable voice. A Mark Kozelek cover, “You Missed My Heart,” ends the album. As with any singer’s debut, the songs here comprise a wide swath of Bridgers’ life, dating from the oldest, “Georgia,” which she calls the most different-sounding on the LP, to the opening pair, which were written after the recording process had already begun. Berg and co-producer Ethan Gruska worked with Bridgers to record in on-and-off stretches in between tours over 2016 at Berg’s studio in Brentwood. She went into the studio with the majority of the material written, however “Smoke Signals” and “Motion Sickness” were written in a cabin in Idaho, while Bridgers was waiting for a tour to begin. The pair were the last songs written for the LP.
“I wasn’t trying to be too lo-fi, too hi-fi, too self-serious, too disingenuous…I feel pretty confident that I’m finding my voice,” she says. “I wanted the album to completely represent who I am and these songs are representative of what I set out to do.”
Lucy Dacus is done thinking small. Two years after her 2016 debut, No Burden, won her unanimous acclaim as one of rock’s most promising new voices, Dacus returns on March 2 with Historian, a remarkably assured 10-track statement of intent. It finds her unafraid to take on the big questions — the life-or-death reckonings, and the ones that just feel that way. It’s a record full of bracing realizations, tearful declarations and moments of hard-won peace, expressed in lyrics that feel destined for countless yearbook quotes and first tattoos.
“This is the album I needed to make,” says Dacus, who views Historian as her definitive statement as a songwriter and musician. “Everything after this is a bonus.”
She emphasizes that she does not take her newfound platform as a touring musician for granted. “I have this job where I get to talk to people I don’t know every night,” she remembers thinking on the long van rides across America to support No Burden. Realizing that she would have a dramatically expanded audience for her second album, she felt an urgent call to make something worthwhile: “The next record should be the thing that’s most important to say.”
The past year, with its electoral disasters and other assorted heartbreaks, has been a rough one for many of us, Dacus included. She found solace in crafting a thoughtful narrative arc for Historian, writing a concept album about cautious optimism in the face of adversity, with thematic links between songs that reveal themselves on repeat listens. “It starts out dark and ends hopeful, but it gets darker in between; it goes to the deepest, darkest, place and then breaks,” she explains. “What I’m trying to say throughout the album is that hope survives, even in the face of the worst stuff.”
Dacus and her band recorded the album in Nashville last March, re-teaming with No Burden producer Collin Pastore, and mixed it a few months later with A-list studio wizard John Congleton. The sound they created, with substantial input from multi-instrumentalist and live guitarist Jacob Blizard, is far richer and fuller than the debut — an outward flowering of dynamic, living, breathing rock and roll. Dacus’ remarkable sense of melody and composition are the driving force throughout, giving Historian the immersive feel of an album made by an artist in full command of her powers.
The album opens with a striking three-track run. First comes “Night Shift,” the only breakup song Dacus has ever written: “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers, dedicated to new lovers,” she memorably declares. Next is the catchy, upbeat first single “Addictions,” inspired in part by the dislocated feeling of life on the road and the lure of familiarity (“I’m just calling cause I’m used to it/And you’ll pick up cause you’re not a quitter…”), followed by “The Shell,” a reflection on (and embrace of) creative burnout. There’s nothing tentative about this opening sequence. Right away, it’s clear that Dacus is on a new level of truth-telling and melodic grace.
Another key highlight is track five, “Yours & Mine” — “the centerpiece where the whole album hinges in on itself,” Dacus says. Using a call-and-response format, she wrestles with the question of how best to participate in a community broken by injustice and fear while staying true to what one believes is right. “It’s about realizing your power as a person, and deciding to do the less safe but ultimately more powerful move, which is to move physically forward — show up and march — and move forward politically,” says Dacus, who began writing the song during the 2015 Baltimore Uprising against systemic racism.
Historian closes with two stunning songs: “Pillar of Truth,” a heartfelt tribute to Dacus’ late grandmother, and “Historians,” which sums up the album’s complex lessons about loss. “From the first song to ‘Pillar of Truth,’ the message is: You can’t avoid these things, so accept them. There’s ways to go about it with grace and gratefulness,” she says. “Then ‘Historians’ says that even if you can say that, there’s still fear, and loss is terrifying. You still love things, so it’s going to hurt. But dark isn’t bad. It’s good to know that.”