One of my pleasures this past winter has been following twilight A roads with a sliver of magenta in the distant west and Weyes Blood (pronounced Wise Blood) sweeping aside all but the silent ocean, barren headlands and growing darkness. And In The Darkness Hearts Aglow a suitable title for both album and experience. A hint of that in what Weyes Blood, real name Natalie Mering, is maybe aiming to convey on track three Grapevine. Taking it’s name from the vertiginous mountain road east of Los Angeles and a breakdown (both car and I’m guessing relationship) in an old ghost town. Melancholy, uncertain and a long way from home. Sort of sums up the record.
From the pulsating almost foreboding synthesiser introduction to several of the ten tracks the tempo barely shifts either side of a walking pace maintaining a sombre ambiance underpinned by a piano or guitar overlayed with multi-tracked vocals, more synths, and tubular bells. Mering playing most instruments barring strings. Think luscious alternative pop with a dash of ecclesiastical. Hardly your classic pedal-to-the-metal music.
A common comparison with Weyes Blood (pronounced Wise Blood, taken from the Flannery O’Connor novel and the name Mering adopted for herself when she was 15) is Karen Carpenter and while Mering’s vocals are far from as sweet as that legend’s there is the same delicacy, almost a nonchalance, but with a hint of The Beach Boys circa Pets Sounds. Particularly so as Children Of The Empire shifts a gear on the chorus with the introduction of finger snaps and distant bells. Imagine a rework of The Sloop John B. Is it a coincidence that early sessions for the album were at LA’s Sunset Boulevard studios where Pets Sounds was recorded. Mering and her co-producer Jonathan Rado eventually pulled out of those studios for fear of making a tribute album. There maybe some irony in there.
There is tragedy in her vocals that remain low key and under performed at all times. It’s as if she doesn’t want to overplay the grandeur of the production. A step back. Never more so than on what for many reviewers is the stand out track God Turn Me Into A Flower. It has the feel of a hymn with multi tracked vocals underpinned by a deeply resonant ecclesiastical organ. Fading into a bucolic avian landscape.
If all this appears gloomy and despondent – it isn’t, always. At times it feels and sounds like the audio equivalent of an epic movie, all landscapes and distances with the odd celestial choir thrown in for good measure. Think of the scene in Gladiator when Russell Crowe is running his hand across the wheat in the Champs-Elysees. It’s also unapologetically LA with references to the place they ‘got’ James Dean, a pier, and ferris wheel and candy cotton. Ambivalent with the American dream but anchored to its memes.
She writes all the material here in addition to playing guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. Still in her thirties she is in tune with the seventies and is openly out of step with the digital app driven social media age, enthusiastic for a time of analogue contact and nostalgia. In 2019 she told US magazine The Believer “I miss so much. I miss going to the video store and renting a video. I miss calling a friend on a landline. I miss when people couldn’t break a plan because they had no way to get in touch with you, so they couldn’t leave you hanging and just send you a bullshit text.”
Nostalgia runs deep through Mering’s work. Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade Of Pale in her live set when a journalist from New Yorker magazine (how I discovered Weyes Blood) visited her at home with songbooks by Joni Mitchell and Elton John open on her grand piano. She talked of her admiration for Jim Morrison and The Doors and especially the tune Riders On The Storm. Echoes of that haunting panorama permeate her work.
Quite how the sound of And In The Darkness Hearts Aglo and its almost equally satisfying predecessor Titanic Rising evolved isn’t easy to comprehend. Her earlier forays into music were considered avant garde. This included phases with a homemade eight foot guitar, lead singer (aka ‘screamer’) with a grindcore band that involved exploding bags of fake blood, and a spell biting bits of fruit wrapped around the microphone. Don’t ask me. I have similar struggles with many of her lyrics that those more perceptive than I have interpreted.
So – “living in the wake of overwhelming changes, we’ve all become strangers, even to ourselves. We just can’t help. We can’t see from far away, to know that every wave might not be the same. But it’s all a part of one big thing.” A song about the effects of the pandemic, maybe?
I’m hoping it will all make sense when I get to see Weyes Blood at the Colours Festival at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill On Sea Saturday June 24.
Until then all I know for certain is that Mering’s patient, swirling, melodic and panoramic pop/rock/folk is my go to drive music. I’ve told others and they agree. ‘It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody’.