“And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow,” the fifth album from Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, announces early on that a reckoning has arrived. Throughout 2019’s searing folk-pop triumph “Titanic Rising,” she gestured at future turmoil: “A lot’s gonna change in your lifetime,” she sings during the opening moments of that record. Her tone sounded curiously sanguine, but the underlying implications were hardly rosy, suggesting unrest on the horizon. “Hearts Aglow” has no such luxury of distance; the challenges looming throughout “Titanic Rising” have collided with the present. “Trying to break away from the mess we made,” she sings on “Hearts Aglow”’s “Children of the Empire”, “Oh, we don’t have time anymore to be afraid.” The turmoil Mering has been warning us about is here.
If the prospect of songs steeped in the reverberations of the pandemic sounds draining, well, fair enough. But few artists are as emotionally direct as Mering is here; her writing registers with crisp clarity, cutting to the bone of the themes she is excavating. What might be cheap and exhausting in the hands of a lesser artist feels frequently cathartic, an exorcism that is honest about its central challenges but hopeful about our ability to transcend them.
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The apex of that hope is “Hearts Aglow”, a glistening centerpiece that identifies love as an unexpected life raft in a time of paralyzing uncertainty. On the surface it may sound like a shallow thesis, but Mering’s earnestness is striking amid the surrounding tumult: “I’ve been without friends…I stopped having fun, oh, but baby you’re the only one who would drive me down to the pier, take me up on that Ferris wheel.” “Grapevine”, a simmering album highlight, refracts the incandescent love of “Hearts Aglow” through a regretful lens, highlighting a connection that quietly endures long after the relationship has disintegrated. “You know I would go back to the camp with the kerosene lamps in the woods,” she sings, “When you were mine, and I was yours for a time.”
These two songs, different though they are, project a certain peace with themselves, a composure that acts as a stabilizer throughout “Hearts Aglow”; the album’s disposition is equally suited to accommodate its bleakest moments as well as its most serene. That is in part due to its supreme patience and confidence; these songs are given space to luxuriate, spreading their toes, often stretching past the five- or six-minute mark. “God Turn Me into a Flower” reframes the myth of Narcissus, first in the form of a spare vocal showcase, an exercise in stillness only pierced by Mering’s voice, then later as a rippling sea of synthesizers courtesy of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin.
It’s all anchored by a sense of melancholy that echoes Mering’s past work but is particularly pronounced now that she is rooting it in the grimmest stretches of the pandemic. “It’s been a long, strange year…I should’ve stayed with my family; I shouldn’t have stayed in my little place in the world’s loneliest city,” she says on “The Worst Is Done”; on opener “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody”: “Living in the wake of overwhelming changes we’ve all become strangers, even to ourselves.” Versions of these sentiments are so familiar as to sound tired on paper, but Mering is a uniquely gifted songwriter, and her soaring vocals and stunning, Laurel Canyon-indebted chamber pop grant her material a widescreen grandiosity that transcends other pandemic-centric albums. Mering has mused that she sees “Hearts Aglow” as the second album in a trilogy that began with “Titanic Rising.” “Hearts Aglow,” bleak though it often is, frequently clings to hope. Whether that optimism will pan out is an open question, but in the moment it serves as a comfort, and maybe that’s all we need for right now.
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