Reckoning with Recognition: Julien Baker’s “Red Door” / “Conversation Piece”

Julien Baker returns with a new single as striking as it is spectral.  

Matador has finally granted Julien Baker’s Record Store Day exclusive single “Red Door” and its companion “Conversation Piece,” limited to just 4,000 copies, a wider release. These two tracks didn’t make the cut for the Memphis-based singer-songwriter’s 2017 record Turn Out the Lights, but they certainly shouldn’t be relegated to the fringes of Baker’s discography. Like her previous single “Funeral Pyre” and its b-side “Distant Solar Systems,” “Red Door” and “Conversation Piece” feel perfectly suited to the seven-inch medium, packaged as two sides of the same coin. Where “Funeral Pyre” touched on a loved one’s suicidal impulses and “Distant Solar Systems” explored the “birth of constellations,” “Red Door” and “Conversation Piece” weigh the pain of feeling utterly invisible with the pain of being all too seen—be it by a partner or a higher power.

At odds with the release’s stark cover photograph, which captures her screaming into a microphone, Baker sounds a bit like an apparition on both of these songs. “Red Door,” previously released only in demo form as a bonus track on the Japanese edition of Turn Out the Lights, sees her once again facing her anxieties fists-forward (see Boygenius’ “Stay Down”). Her tour manager urges her against taking out her fears on unassuming garbage cans: “You’re gonna break your hand,” he warns, as if to remind her not only that her hands are necessary to her livelihood, but that her hands exist at all. “Do you see me?” she beseeches God, comparing herself to a “flickering bulb” on the verge of burning out completely.

“Red Door” features one of Baker’s most ornate arrangements to date, adding carefully chosen moments of vocal distortion, piano, and layers of finger-picking and harmonics that make her voice sound like it’s emanating from the center of a tornado. Its elaborate instrumentation threatens to swallow her up, emphasizing the suffocating fury that builds throughout its lyrics. The song, she says, was partially inspired by a former pastor, who once burst in late to a gathering full of rage at fellow commuters who had blocked emergency medical assistance on the highway. Her pastor explained to the congregation that she couldn’t stop herself from bellowing and banging on other people’s cars as the victims of an accident languished ahead. “Red Door” puts Baker in her pastor’s shoes, and features some of her most gruesome imagery. She is “wandering into traffic screaming,” set ablaze, “painting the concrete the color of [her] bloody knuckles” raw from pounding on windshields: and remains unconvinced that she will be recognized even as she is awash in its titular red.

Yet the song culminates in one of the paradoxically hopeful conclusions at which Baker so excels. “I wanna let you break me / I wanna let you break my heart,” she cries out—to God, to humanity, to her listener? No longer a phantom, she insists on her capacity to be broken.

“Conversation Piece” grapples with this revelation: the painful awareness that she is seen, that her body does take up space. “Please don’t look at me that way,” she requests, full of self-deprecation (“I’m not that interesting”) with none of her characteristic catharsis. “If I had it my way, I would be a ghost and abandon the white sheet,” Baker tells us, and here she sounds ghostlier than ever, her achingly restrained vocals backed up by spectral harmonies, celestial guitar, the faintest of drums, and lush strings from familiar collaborator Camille Faulkner. “I could float around and rearrange objects to a conversation piece,” she suggests, the song reaching its most angelic heights at its most self-effacing moment: wordless and translucent, she still thinks of keeping guests entertained.

“Conversation Piece” quietly confronts the inescapable responsibility that comes with being seen: the confusion over what others see when they look at you, and the realization that there is little one can do to control it. Each of her wishes—to be a ghost, to be invisible, to disappear—are suffused with their stinging impossibility. “It already feels when you hold me that your hands could pass right through my body,” she tells her partner, and the core of the pain seems to rest not in the feeling but in the corporeal truth.

Baker’s new tracks will appeal to her longtime fans, taking up her customary themes of mental health, navigating Christianity, and her quest to live with something like virtue. But they will find new fans, too, in anyone searching for truth, anyone feeling like a stranger in their own body. Ultimately, however, “Conversation Piece,” like “Red Door,” shows us that allowing ourselves to be seen poses not only the deepest threat of shame but our deepest opportunities for growth: Faulkner’s final burst of triumphant strings suggests that we don’t have to wait for the next life to find the possibility of rebirth.

Red Door / Conversation Piece is out today on all streaming platforms via Matador.