By Tony Inglis
CCA, Glasgow, 9 November 2017
Tennessee singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Julien Baker arrived in Glasgow riding a crest of popularity, but not completely shielded from criticism. Touring off the back of her weirdly divisive new album Turn Out the Lights, its recent release has garnered a reaction ranging from an outpouring of critical acclaim to ignorant and belittling comments on her brand of slow, quiet emo.
The truth is, Baker’s new album is a step up in every way. Her debut solo outing Sprained Ankle showcased an uncomfortably close earnestness and wisdom; Turn Out the Lights expresses this with even greater clarity and immediacy against a backdrop of intricate arrangements and production which is noticeably more polished, but still keeps Baker’s words feeling incredibly close. These are sad songs for people who want to drench themselves in Baker’s experience whether they can personally relate or not.
In some album reviews, the unwavering heaviness and constant weight of emotion has been a point of negativity. But, this completely misses the point of why emo, and emo-inflected, music has resonated so much with fans this year and throughout the genre’s existence. With headphones on, it allows us to retreat in on ourselves and wallow totally in the atmosphere created by its artists. But when joined in a dark room with a hundred other like-minded individuals and that artists singing alone on the stage in front of you, it can be transformed into a completely uplifting and cathartic experience. These songs may seem constricting, but, in actuality, they open us up more fully.
At the CCA in Glasgow’s city centre, recently host to some of indie rock’s brightest, most exciting guitar wielders, there is no doubting which side of the divide the sold out audience falls on. When Baker repeats the mantra of opening song ‘Appointments’ – “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright, I know that it’s not but I have to believe that it is” – the audience is silent, breathless even.
This city provides, perhaps, an even warmer welcome than most. A community of Julien Baker enthusiasts, stirred up in no small part by the fandom of West End record store LP Records (which counts her debut as one of its biggest sellers, and in which, earlier that day, Baker played an intimate set), likely makes up a good chunk of the Wednesday night crowd. It is a movement that is near unheard of in modern music thanks to how organically it has sprung up.
And so, the extremely warm, respectful reception Baker receives is no surprise – few audience members reach for phones and the crunching of the odd, grounded plastic cup is the only sound that fills the room, other than Baker’s note-perfect voice and rapturous applause. She moves effortlessly between guitar and piano, striding through highlights from both of her records, as well as one off single ‘Funeral Pyre’.
Yes, at times, the atmosphere created by these songs of depression, addiction and religion can feel crushingly low. But, isn’t that what we’re all here for? In any case, complaints about the solemn intensity of Baker’s songs seems misplaced. These aren’t songs simply about her past troubles; they fly in the face of those times. As Baker says herself onstage, explaining how two songs written at such disparate times in her life now sit next to each other on her set list, being able to write and sing these songs, and sharing them with people across the world, is one way of exorcising those demons.
From a purely experiential viewpoint, her performance is filled with memorable moments. During the closing chorus on ‘Sour Breath’, Baker’s voice ringing the words “the harder I swim, the faster I sink” fills any empty space left in the CCA. The zenith of her recent album’s title track marks the only time that her guitar swells over her commanding voice. The piano chords of ‘Claws in Your Back’ represent the peak, so far, of her abilities, before a cover of Audioslave’s ‘Doesn’t Remind Me’, written by the late Chris Cornell, turns what is usually a ripping rock tune into something else entirely, the lyrics taking on a whole new meaning when played back in Baker’s signature style.
The night’s closing song ‘Something’ almost inspires a sing-a-long, but most of the crowd remain mute and transfixed. Perhaps everyone realises that the power expressed onstage can’t be imitated. What is certain is that every individual in that room left a little more filled up than before, their pains, however small, reflected back at them by the talent of an independent artist and knowing that they are part of a wider collective that knows the same.
Featured photo credit: Nolan Knight