This year, I got a tattoo of a song lyric on my arm, a verse to remind me about my relationship with God and being gay. Before I put ink to skin, I read through an old prayer journal of mine, like you’d read through the first texts you sent your longtime partner. Just to make sure it all happened the way you thought, and for old time’s sake.
Some people will tell you there’s a right way and wrong way to pray. Up until a few years ago, the journal was my way — divine petition cloaked in diary. The entries were steeped in the rhetoric I learned from daily devotionals and worship band reveries. “Crucify these sinful things,” I asked God one night, when I was trying to ask for the “right” thing, the “right” way.
These days, my prayers contain fewer Sunday school phrases. They’re more often fits thrown driving alone in cars, or silent requests when I turn out the lights and my head hits the pillow. They sound, as I’ve found, a lot like Julien Baker’s music.
Baker, a singer-songwriter phenom from Memphis, Tenn., has grappled with faith and sexuality, among other weights, over the course two albums — 2015’s devastating “Sprained Ankle” and this year’s excellent “Turn Out the Lights.” Her music is defined by the proving fire of growing up gay in the Southern church, and it fearlessly treads back down the roads of depression and addiction on which she’s traveled. Baker, rainbow guitar strap slung over her slight shoulder, brought this wide-open heart to Emo’s on Monday night for an intimate, bare-bones set. It screamed with, as she’d put it, “holy noise.”
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Opening with “Appointments,” Baker eased in soft, and you could feel the crowd waiting for her massive voice to soar into the dark. That’s why you come to a Julien Baker show, besides the words. You come for that voice, which is blown glass, a sound glowing with heat that feels comforting from a distance, inflating from nothing and seemingly ever-expansive. If notes could catch light, hers would have gleamed with blues and yellows from the spots overhead.
When Baker seamlessly transitioned to the song “Turn Out the Lights,” the odd “woo” from the audience felt like an intrusion. The audience, though, had cause for hallelujahs and amens, as the singer’s good words touched the spirit, even when not in song. Baker picked up a second guitar between songs, and she explained that she had just gotten a proper strap for it after five years of using a shoelace. That’s how she deals with problems, she said: improvised solutions and workarounds.
“But I fixed it today!” Baker said, sunny-side-up in small triumph. Voices from the floor rang with knowing approval.
Even with those light moments, Baker’s inward gaze was unsparing. Her candor arrested your ears, the kind of thing that can bring comfort if you’ve known the same sorrows that she has. “The harder I swim, the faster I sink,” from “Sour Breath,” was vulnerability delivered with a bracing cry. On the heartbreaking “Everybody Does,” Baker sang “I know myself better than anybody else/And you're gonna run/You're gonna run when you find out who I am.” Tough words from low points, but Baker’s clear-eyed introspection had no time for self-pity.
Now, this evening was no sad slog (though Baker did sing about funeral pyres). It was about coming out the other side. The singer took time to intro the full-hearted “Rejoice,” explaining that it’s about finding grace and things to be grateful for even when everything is painful.
“Know my name and all of my hideous mistakes,” she sang. “But I rejoice.”
Really, that song is all you needed to know about Baker’s music. If you were of the mind that a prayer has to be sent on a knee, head bowed and palms flush, you might have had trouble finding God on Riverside Drive. Those in attendance were rapt, wrapped into the moment by the curtain that Emo’s puts down in middle of the room for smaller crowds. Kind of a makeshift veil for this holy of hole-filled holies.
“But I think there's a God and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain,” Baker sang, her mouth opening impossibly wide to let those raw things out, sending them to someone she knew was listening. She made a little sacred space Monday night, and she used her voice to pierce through all the things you’ve been told make you profane.
They were the right words, the right way.