Music

Weyes Blood Serenades The Apocalypse On The Stunning ‘Titanic Rising’

Kathryn Vetter Miller/Uproxx Studios

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The singer-songwriter Natalie Mering, who records and performs as Weyes Blood, presents herself on her album covers as a person from nowhere. On 2016’s Front Row Seat To Earth, her critical breakthrough and third album overall, she lays on what appears to be a beach set against a body of water and a mountain range that looks thoroughly alien, as if it were the planet that David Bowie escaped in The Man Who Fell To Earth. (It’s actually California’s eerie Salton Sea.) Mering’s latest effort, the stunning and career-best Titanic Rising, shows her floating ethereally in a childhood bedroom that has been completely submerged in water, sending her long, brown hair flowing upward like a character from Greek mythology, a figure perpetually stuck out of time.

But Mering is not from nowhere. She was born in Southern California, and then bounced around the country during her youth, settling for a time outside of Philadelphia, where she started writing songs as a teenager. Her parents were former musicians who found God and became born-again Christians, though Mering rebelled by watching The Kids In The Hall. This mix of religious fervor and absurdist surrealism subsequently informed her music.

As a songwriter, Mering’s specialty is writing classic ’70s AM pop melodies — the sort that Paul Williams or Burt Bacharach once composed for the Carpenters — and setting them to songs that ruminate on how technology has destroyed nearly everything essential to human life in the 21st century, from romantic love to the climate. The result is millennial-themed, new age-accented soft rock, in which the stoicism of Mering’s stirring voice plays against the conversational nature of the lyrics. In contrast with the exotic figure on her album covers, Mering is dryly funny in her songs, like the part in “Everyday,” a highlight from Titanic Rising, where she sings, “The other night I was at a party / someone sincerely looked at me / and said this is the end of monogamy / and I said not today.” It’s akin to Enya singing Tumblr posts.

Mering didn’t return to California until around the time she was making Front Row Seat To Earth. This timing proved to be fortuitous, given how it coincided with her albums growing progressively grander and more obsessed with the end of the world. Musically, Mering recalls the exquisitely played pop-rock associated with LA’s world-class studio scene in the ’60s and ’70s. (Titanic Rising feels like an unofficial companion to another early 2019 standout album, Jenny Lewis’ On The Line.) But Mering’s strongest tie to California is philosophical.

SoCal has long been a destination for those with a premonition that our society simply cannot continue on its current, diseased path. There’s something about being bathed in omnipresent sunshine and still feeling paranoid and full of dread that convinces people that the apocalypse is just around the corner, whether you’re L. Ron Hubbard, Charles Manson, or Tupac. Or maybe mass destruction just seems more, well, cinematic in La La Land. Either way, the world did not end then or now (yet), which has enabled each new generation to feel as though the walls are closing in for the first time. “The sun is a joke,” Nathaniel West writes in The Day Of The Locust, the prototypical novel of LA angst. That book turns 80 in May. But the sun is still a joke.

Of course, the sun has a different layer of malevolence for members of Mering’s generation. She has spoken often in interviews about her concerns about climate change, and those fears inform Titanic Rising, though not in an explicit way. (The title is a metaphor for man’s hubris that, yes, references the 1997 James Cameron film.)

The tug of nostalgia recurs throughout Mering’s songs, starting with the opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change,” which sets the album’s wistful tone. “If I could go back to a time before now / before I ever fell down / I’d go back to a time when I was just a girl / when I had the whole world / gently wrapped around me.” A feeling of defeat permeates Titanic Rising, and the elegiac and gorgeous music swells like a requiem for a world that is on its last legs. “It’s a wild time to be alive,” Mering sighs toward the end of the album — not with wonder, but rather resignation.

A natural comparison to Titanic Rising is Pure Comedy, the similarly epic-sounding classic LA pop throwback with a pessimistic heart put out by Father John Misty in 2017. Like Mering, Josh Tillman was raised with religion without carrying the belief in salvation into adulthood. What’s left on both albums is a proclivity for amping up personal neuroses to the scale of hymns fit to be sung in large cathedrals, buffeted with wondrous string sections, silky slide-guitar tones, and gurgling Moog riffs. (Jonathan Rado, who collaborated with Tillman on 2018’s God’s Favorite Customer, also co-produced Titanic Rising with Mering.)

Where Tillman and Mering diverge is that Tillman filled his songs with words and words and more words, while Mering puts the focus on the music and her own, frankly incredible vocals. She’s reminiscent of an operatic Karen Carpenter, or a chamber-pop Sandy Denny, though she really deserves to be put in a class of her own.

The music on Titanic Rising, and how it evokes a kind of widescreen and professionally executed pop music that seems to be all but instinct, will likely open up Mering to accusations that she’s hiding from the horrors of the present by building sonic worlds dedicated to preserving the past. Titanic Rising is ultimately a salve, though it shouldn’t be mistaken for the simplistic and base comforts associated with superficial nostalgia.

The music Mering draws from was made at a time of political assassinations, race riots, decades-long wars, political corruption, and murderous cults. Responding to those tragedies with sumptuous soft rock was a form of escapism, though the aching melancholy in that music always betrayed the reality of what was going on outside the cozy studio walls. But, in the end, the world survived the awfulness of those times. So, maybe, we can make it out of these awful times, too.

Titanic Rising is out 4/5 via Sub Pop. Get it here.

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