Good critical writing is about balance. Too invested or partisan and you’re frivolous; too obdurately austere and you’re tedious. Beyond an aptitude for aligning Big Words to compose meaning, critical writing is challenging because that balance between substantive analysis and emotional petition is a precariously lean wire; but when it’s realised, such equilibrium is edifying, entertaining, instinctively satisfying. After reading our best music critics, you come away better illuminated of an album’s value, and its value. There is, however, music which snips the wire, where a discerning balance is practically irreconcilable and the critical faculty subverted; impregnable and extraordinary soundscapes that fortify themselves against deconstruction; movements and spaces so antithetical to taste that impartiality would be disingenuous; and songs so emotionally incisive that criticism – as criticism – would be almost malignant. Julien Baker’s Turn Out The Lights falls under the latter.

The plying, translucent scarcity of Baker’s debut Sprained Ankle, more exposed marrow than skeletal, has been substantiated by lucid piano and bleached strings. The layering initially feels crowded and distancing, due to compartmentalised expectation more than anything, but its effect blooms into a wallflower provision, a cradle for the poesy initiated by the piano’s bow into glistening guitar during intro track ‘Over’’s transition into ‘Appointments’, until the virulent balladry of final cut ‘Claws In Your Back’, where it decidedly forefronts itself. It doesn’t sound bigger, just more.

Baker’s lyrics are superficially prosaic; it’s a modest vernacular with little abstraction, no irony, and portions of instructive silence. Like Frank Ocean, the poetry seems to thrive, submerged, within the lyrics rather than reside externally. When Baker pleads on ‘Appointments’ that “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right/ And I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is,” there are no clichés or utility jargon that can do justice to how nascently relatable it is. It hits you like a [something], in the [something], rousing [something]. Is it a gut punch? Crude. Is it honest? Meaningless. Is it saccharine? Heartless. It’s a straightforward confession that imparts infinitely more. These moments of debased purity are recurring; the rudimentary metaphor in “The harder I swim the faster I sink,” which constitutes ‘Sour Breath’’s catatonic refrain; and the withering rhetorical enquiry in ‘Happy To Be Here’, “Well I heard there’s a fix for everything/ Then why not me?” Neither the language nor the ideas are ambitious or complex, or even that sophisticated, but what they are is fundamental absolutes processed and communicated exquisitely. You identify with it organically, impulsively, and its trenchancy ostensibly precludes scrutiny.

Baker wheels around and amalgamates romance, substance abuse, faith, depression, existentialism, their penalties and consequences skewering each other; on ‘Happy To Be Here’ she sighs “I miss you the way I miss nicotine,” and on ‘Shadowboxing’ she roars “Singing too loud in church/ Screaming my fears into speakers.” All divergences are part and parcel of the life’s hole. Frequently it’s ambiguous who she’s addressing; herself, God, a lover, a friend, the thankless ether, all of it meshed and marred, a conduit for reflection on a daily life infuriatingly complex and infuriatingly simple, where our answers and doubts harmoniously hover along nerve endings in our brain, inaccessible and tyrannical. Self-pity, self-loathing, and a consumptive fatalism blinker windows of progress or sanguinity, until the last. As Baker fades on the ruptured ‘Claws In Your Back’ with “I think I can love/ The sickness you made/ ‘Cause I take it all back… I wanted to stay,” the collective denouement is adamantly dejected and optimistic. Believing in the redeemable is more important than the redeemable existing. It’s probably not going to turn out alright, but we have to believe that it is.

It’s nonsensical that something could concurrently stand as the most uplifting and downcast record of the year, and yet here we are. What elevates Turn Out The Lights is that it’s sensory as well as earnest, personally destabilising while artfully assured; it oscillates in the spilling synaesthesia of panic attacks, the dizzying clarity of epiphany, the paralysing futility of depressive episodes, the unfathomable locus of being okay. It’s a record which looks beyond the safe spaces and the nadirs to what may or may not be. It invokes both the abrupt blank and the perennially pregnant hope of a full stop.