The last time the world heard from singer-songwriter Natalie Mering it was 2019, and Titanic Rising, her fourth album under the name Weyes Blood, was quite rightly hailed as one of the year’s best. Titanic Rising’s sound was rich and very evocative of early 70s California. His songs, however, were very much a product of the 21st century, marked by a pervasive sense of imminent catastrophe, fueled by an index of millennial worries that stretched from online dating to late capitalism and environmental collapse.
Not unexpectedly, the intervening three years haven’t done a lot to improve Mering’s mood. By her own account, she was not one of those people who found the Covid pandemic an unexpected but ultimately welcome reset, a chance to pause and breathe and take stock. “Has a time ever been more revealing that people are hurting,” she asks, rhetorically, on Titanic Rising’s successor, an album on which everything is broken and everyone is failing to connect with everyone else.
“I’d give anything to hang, I’ve been without friends,” she protests on a song called Hearts Aglow, but when she does, it doesn’t come as much relief. After a beautiful shimmer of strings, the first thing you hear on And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow is Mering describing sitting alone at a party, “wondering if anyone knows me, really sees who I am – it’s been so long since I felt really known.” Should anyone wonder what Mering thinks the problem is, the accompanying video for the song It’s Not Just Me It’s Everybody features her performing a choreographed pas de deux with an animated mobile phone that, when not dancing, rips the guts out of human beings. On Grapevine, she fondly recalls an ex, wondering if she’ll see him again: when she subsequently does, he’s driving on the other side of the road, briefly glimpsed as he speeds in the opposite direction. It’s a worldview perhaps linked to her unwise lockdown arrangements. “I should have stayed with my family,” she ruefully complains as the album draws to a close, “I shouldn’t have stayed in my little place in the world’s loneliest city” – hardly a line that her adopted hometown of Los Angeles is going to be used in its tourism literature, no matter how successful And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow becomes.
Whatever havoc the pandemic may have wreaked on Mering’s already gloomy outlook, it’s done nothing to spoil her melodic facility. And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow gently bombards you with one fantastic tune after another: the lovely sigh of Grapevine; Twin Flame, on which her vocal soars away from the sparse synthesiser-and-ancient-drum-machine backing; the deceptively carefree-sounding Children of the Empire, surrounded by a complex, Brian Wilson-inspired arrangement that ultimately involves everything from tubular bells to a tuba, but never sounds overwrought.
In addition, the album’s one-line pitch – bleak state-of-the-world address set to lushly retro arrangements – feels as if it undersells its complexity. Its sound isn’t merely a matter of historical re-enactment. Mering’s route to making music like this has been circuitous – she started her career as part of Portland’s noise-rock scene, enjoying a brief stint as bassist for fearsome sonic explorers Jackie-O Motherfucker, while Weyes Blood’s early releases dealt in challengingly lo-fi freak-folk – and her experimental past keeps bubbling up through the album’s lush sheen. God Turn Me Into a Flower pitches her voice and melodies against a droning synthesiser that eventually consumes the song, transforming it into a landscape of agitated electronic flurries and curiously unsettling bird song. There’s something similarly tense and disturbing about the instrumental interlude In Holy Flux and the noise that opens, and then keeps interrupting the harmony-laden country rock of The Worst Is Done.
Meanwhile, the obvious vocal comparison is to Karen Carpenter, with whom she shares a controlled, velvety melancholy. And, like Carpenter’s music, there’s something curiously unknowable at this album’s center. Just as it’s never entirely clear if Carpenter was intentionally freighting what was meant to be easy listening with an almost unbearable sadness – whether she was really pouring her own distress into her readings of songs or whether the listener is simply retrospectively projecting their knowledge onto the sound of her voice – it isn’t entirely clear whether everything Mering sings is meant in deadly earnest. When she blithely dismantles the initial optimism of The Worst Is Over – “I think it’s only just begun” – you find yourself wondering if you’re in the presence of a doomsayer or an exceptionally deadpan humorist. It makes And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow seem more of a puzzle that it first appears – one that’s an unalloyed joy to solve.
This week Alexis listened to
Joy Orbison, 2M3 2U
The opposite of Joy Orbison’s luscious recent collaboration with Jorja Smith, 2M3 2U is sparse, brain-scrambling and built for dark dancefloors in the small hours.