Review: Julien Baker’s Modern Gospel in “Red Door / Conversation Piece”

Julien Baker Red Door
In her newest double single featuring the tracks “Red Door” and “Conversation Piece,” Julien Baker takes moments and stories and transform them into quasi-biblical parables that serve as vessels for her own growth and devotion.

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Red Door Julien Baker
Red Door/Conversation Piece – Julien Baker

Under the magenta glow of concert lights, Julien Baker shares a story. Second-hand from the vicar from an Episcopal church Baker attends, the anecdote is about a time that the priest was stuck in traffic on her way to give a sermon. It was rush-hour, but highway was backed-up because of a fatal crash up the road. As the vicar sat in the deadlock, she could hear the sirens of ambulances behind her trying to make their way to the crash, but the traffic refused to move out of the emergency lane – “because they were trying to go to Happy Hour or something,” Baker chides. Aghast, the vicar gets out of her car, puts on her clerical collar and robes, and then starts banging on the hoods on the cars around her, screaming “What are you doing?! Why don’t you care about each other?!”

If the Bible were to have another gospel, one that tests the tenets of Christianity against the backdrop of modernity, then surely Julien Baker sings about it. In her newest double single featuring the tracks “Red Door” and “Conversation,” Baker takes moments and stories and transform them into quasi-biblical parables that serve as vessels for her own growth and devotion.

Listen: “Red Door/ Conversation Piece” – Julien Baker

The first song, “Red Door,” has been part of her live performance for several years but had never been fully mastered. Opening with stripped-down guitar chords backed by electronics, the track opens with a verse harking back to an instance where Baker punched a trash can before a meeting – “my manager told me that if I keep coping with anger and anxiety that way, I was going to end up breaking my hand,” she said.  Then after a beautiful interlude of flowery guitar-work, Baker takes vicar’s story and makes it her own:

You don’t understand
I know the last time I swore
Not to make a scene and now I’m wandering into traffic screaming
To set me on fire in the middle of the street
Bend my knees, paint the concrete
The color of my bloody knuckles
Pulling splinters from the chapel door

“It’s about being able to have anger, and honor that anger, and understand that it is a valid emotion,” Baker says about the track.

Conversation Piece” is an entirely new single. Baker had reportedly started producing the track during while recording her sophomore LP Turn Out the Lights, but it hadn’t been fully realized until now. Juxtaposed to the anger and fault-finding of “Red Door,” this track is much more melancholic. It opens with a series of airy guitar chords before Baker starts slowly singing: 

Please don’t look at me that way,
Your eyes are so heavy,
And I’m not that interesting
If I had it my way,
I would be a ghost,
And abandon the white sheet
God, it’s so hard to be seen

Placed side-by-side, the two tracks paint a portrait of Baker shows her symbolically punch a chapel door out of frustration, but in the other reach out to her God about her own anxieties and doubts. We as listeners, as Rachel Syme once wrote for The New Yorker, feel as if are “an interloper, eavesdropping on someone else’s prayers.” As the song progresses, more strings and layered vocals are added, building a sense of weightlessness that makes it seem like Baker is becomes a ghost with every second. But then, the accompaniment cuts out entirely, leaving Baker asking:

So, do you think when I die, I’d get a second try?
To do everything right I couldn’t the first time?

Baker’s self is formed by a deep sense of faith that she acquired through her upbringing in Memphis, and her identity as a gay woman. Her earlier works Sprained Ankle (2015) and Turn Out the Lights (2017) depicted her wrestling with these seemingly opposing spheres where at times her devotion would give way to fleeting moment of acceptance, and at others, we could feel her being drawn and quartered by her unanswerable doubts.

But with this new double single, we get a glimpse of Julien Baker, now a 23-year-old woman, turning this devotion outward following these years of doubts and self-recrimination. She’s sees herself not as a depraved monstrosity, but rather flawed as all beings are. Baker, as all religious souls do, is endlessly holding herself up to the yardstick of her faith; however, we also see questioning and probing beyond herself. Like a flower blooming in the slowest of motion, or a character in a novel thousands of pages long, Baker and her faith evolve in front of us.

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Red Door Julien Baker

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