Do flower children still inhabit a dying planet? If temperatures keep rising, will there be anything left of the garden? On an increasingly ambitious series of records released over the past decade, Natalie Mering, who makes music under the name Weyes Blood, has sought answers to these riddles.
Mering is something of a Laurel Canyon revivalist, though Weyes Blood doesn’t traffic in simple nostalgia. Instead, the 34-year-old singer and songwriter resurrects, uncannily, the sound of late ’60s and early ’70s West Coast folk-rock to address more contemporary existential crises and conflagrations, like digital-era loneliness and climate change. “California’s my body, and your fire runs over me,” she sings on the expansive “Grapevine,” a highlight from her stunning new album “And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow.” That lyric, like many of Mering’s best, succinctly intertwines the personal sorrow of heartbreak with the shared tragedy of environmental catastrophe.
Mering’s distinct alto has the opalescence of Karen Carpenter’s voice and the enveloping benevolence of Cass Elliot’s, though as a songwriter she shares a certain millennial poeticism with Lana Del Rey. (Mering was featured on Del Rey’s 2021 album “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” lending her voice, fittingly, to a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.”) Mering’s perspective often zooms out and hovers over the pastoral landscapes of her songs like an elegant bird, but “Grapevine” — a chamber-pop slow-burner that carries its brass and string sections lightly — contains some cutting, down-to-earth observations about an overconfident man that feel of a piece with Del Rey’s “Norman _____ Rockwell.” “Emotional cowboy,” Mering croons knowingly, “you stayed up all night, trying to beat up the moon.”
Over time, Mering has learned not only to trust her voice’s beauty, but to depict beauty and even softness itself as a subversive tool. Many of the listeners she won over with her last album as Weyes Blood, the mellifluous 2019 breakout “Titanic Rising,” probably don’t know she got her start playing in experimental groups and noise bands (one of which has a name that can’t be mentioned in this paper). As Weyes Blood — a moniker borrowed from a famously unsettling Flannery O’Connor novel — Mering has found different, and perhaps even more effective, ways of conjuring destruction. On the surface, “And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow” often sounds angelic (four of the 10 tracks feature the harpist Mary Lattimore) but there’s a foreboding sense of apocalypse in the periphery, like a cinematic monster made that much more terrifying for hovering just outside of the frame.
What distinguishes the new album, which Mering produced with Jonathan Rado and Rodaidh McDonald, is the addition of a whole new boogeyman: mass isolation wrought by a global pandemic. “We’re not meant to be our own angels all the time,” Mering sings on “The Worst Is Done,” atop incongruously sunny guitar chords and bouncy percussion. “No one coming by to see if you’re alive.” Elsewhere, on the stirring leadoff track “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” she asks into an echoing void, “Has there ever been a time more revealing that the people are hurting?” That song, one of her best yet, begins as an AM-gold-style piano ballad and ends up, in its rapturous conclusion, becoming the sonic equivalent of a group hug.
Mering’s music often revels in the plurality of its perspective; we is just as common a pronoun as me. Every so often, this imperative to speak big-tent truths can become strained and make her lyrics frustratingly vague, as on “Children of the Empire” (“we tend to live long, that’s why so many things go wrong”), but that song’s gorgeous vocal melody and Mering’s impassioned performance lift it beyond its limitations. (“Hearts Aglow” certainly contains some of the best and most soulful singing on any of Mering’s records.) Even Mering’s most on-the-nose “pandemic song,” “The Worst Is Done,” is most vivid when she’s singing about her individual experience: “I should’ve stayed with my family,” she sings, “I shouldn’t have stayed in my little place in the world’s loneliest city.”
That grounding in personal experience, though, is what elevates a song like “Grapevine” or the more abstract “God Turn Me Into a Flower,” a minimalist, synth-driven meditation that becomes almost liturgical in its emotional power. “It’s good to be soft when they push you down,” Mering sings, clarion-like. Lyrically, it’s the album’s most singular and inward-focused song, but it is also a plea to transcend self-consciousness and become one with nature. In the end, Mering gets her wish: For the last minute, her voice falls away and a chorus of chirping birds and whirring insects take over the vocal duties. However temporarily, she’s become a more modern kind of flower child, sunk blissfully into the fecund earth that — at least for now — hasn’t yet been scorched beyond repair.
“And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow”