Three years ago, indie artist Natalie Mering, known as Weyes Blood, released Titanic Rising. Critics considered the album to be not only a career highlight, but also one of the best records of that year. Her musings about the isolating effects of modern technology and the looming danger of climate change proved prophetic.
Months later, the novel coronavirus outbreak forced the world to a halt, relegating our social and professional lives to our screens. Several extreme climate events, including record-breaking wildfires in the singer’s home state of California, made it clear that climate change is an issue that cannot be ignored. She had struck gold.
Now, the songstress returns with her fifth studio album And in The Darkness, Hearts Aglow, the second installment in a musical trilogy beginning with her previous album. Thematically, the records are very similar, in the sense that they are exploring the same philosophical thesis. And while Mering composed a soundscape of whirring machinery and deep waters for Titanic Rising, this time she is reveling in the beauty of the ordinary, placing and mimicking sounds of nature in her instrumentation.
As always, Mering yearns for genuine connections. The opening track, “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” starts with the melancholy lines, “Sitting at this party / Wondering if anyone really knows me / Really sees who I am / Oh it’s been so long since I’ve felt really known.” And yet, she refuses to sit in this isolation. As the title (and refrain) suggest, these feelings of loneliness are widespread among the population. Mering calls for us to be more gentle with ourselves and with others, singing, “Mercy is the only / Cure for being so lonely.”
Mering shines brightest through her grand instrumental and choral compositions. As old listeners know, Mering is not afraid to pull out all the stops – bells, horns, synths and all. “Children of the Empire” features a particularly robust choral composition that, combined with the percussion and lilting guitar riff, is reminiscent of the Beach Boys at their best. Here, she once again takes the role of speaker for a younger generation, addressing our emotional wounds and the age-old question, “How do we improve the world we’ve inherited?”
Romantic love, a tangential theme in her last record, is at the forefront of And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, and seamlessly mingles with songs about society and community. If anything, Mering paints romantic relationships in a cautionary light, portraying the pitfalls of bonding with a lover in the hopes of healing past traumas.
“Hearts Aglow,” the fifth track, depicts the honeymoon stage of Mering and her partner, but is underpinned by a constant fear of falling into an emotional abyss: “I’m staring at that black water down below / Knowing I could fall if I let go.” It features the same casually melodramatic and picturesque lyricism you might find in a Lana Del Rey song, especially in the first verse when Mering sings, “‘Cause I was so bored, take me to the water / I’d give anything to hang,” and, “Baby you’re the only one / Who would drive me down to the pier / Take me up on that ferris wheel.” However, Mering possesses a self-awareness that Del Rey lacks. She is not glorifying this relationship. In fact, she spoils the ending before we hear the beginning. “Grapevine,” two songs before “Hearts Aglow,” shows Mering leaving her emotionally negligent partner. It’s a song with rumbling guitars and drums straight out of an old Western soundtrack with the lyrics to match: imagery of ghost towns, an “emotional cowboy” and James Dean. Luckily, she has the songwriting prowess to avoid making these metaphors annoyingly cliché.
For me, the album highlights were “Twin Flame” and “The Worst Is Done.” “Twin Flame” is the greatest departure from Weyes Blood’s usual sound – it’s her pop-iest song yet. With its lo-fi synth bass lines, it blends in more with the trendy indie pop sound (think Harry’s House). But knowing she’s an 80s baby, I suspect that she pulled from Phil Collins and other 80s crooners. “The Worst Is Done” is truly a song of the times, discussing the end of quarantine and the rushed return to normalcy. Mering cannot help but worry in the chorus, “They say the worst is done / But I think it’s only just begun / I hear it from everyone / We’re all so cracked after that.” The song ends with eerie synth high notes, musically questioning the song’s otherwise upbeat sound.
The obvious question looms: “Is this better than Titanic Rising?” In terms of sequels, it’s no The Godfather: Part II – Titanic Rising packs a punch that And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow never delivers. At the same time, I don’t think that’s the point of this record. Titanic Rising was a blaring alarm, calling into question the things we call normal. And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow arrives with this context, and would be redundant if it attempted to do the same thing. Mering provides us with the comforting yet honest voice necessary after one realizes they’re living in unprecedented times. The beauty of this record is that she is able to admit that she’s just as traumatized as her audience. It’s no The Godfather: Part II because that’s not what we needed. And that’s okay.
Thumbnail courtesy of Weyes Blood / YouTube.