Weyes Blood’s 2019 album Titanic Rising felt like an arrival. After years of pushing her sound in new directions—from DIY noise and psychedelic folk to peculiar hymns and points in between—Natalie Mering’s fourth full-length under her distinctive alias seemed to be a realization of where she was trying to go all along.
Her fifth album, And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, finds her settling into that place and staying a while. Gone, mostly, are the idiosyncrasies of her earliest work, replaced by Mering’s preferred form now: Beautiful baroque-pop songs, elegantly arranged and patiently delivered, with her compelling alto voice front and center. It boggles the mind a bit to imagine tracing the journey from Weyes Blood’s noisy 2011 album The Outside Room to Hearts Aglow, though it becomes easier when you remember Mering has worked with deadpan pop star Lana del Rey in recent years.
In other words, this is Weyes Blood at her smoothest and most approachable, with the cracks filled in and rough edges polished away. It is pretty and well put together, even if it lacks the quirks that helped make Mering’s music special in the first place.
Thematically, Hearts Aglow is a post-COVID-19-pandemic record (though yes, the pandemic is not over), wherein Mering sings repeatedly about isolation and loneliness, loss of identity, the effect of technology on human relationships and “living in the wake of overwhelming changes” (from album opener “It’s Not Just Me, it’s Everybody”). She frames the album’s context most plainly on its penultimate track, a strummy folk-rock tune called “The Worst is Done” that’s upbeat despite the subject matter:
It’s been a long strange year
They lost what they thought they had
We lost our voices
Can’t keep with all the changes
It’s a different world
Elsewhere, Mering laments “livin’ in a lost time” in Hearts Aglow’s catchiest song, the bouncy “Children of the Empire,” and she reckons with gridlock and heartbreak on “Grapevine,” a midtempo tune dressed up with synthesizers and tubular bells. (As always, co-producer Jonathan Rado’s lush aesthetic nicely complements Mering’s expressive tendencies.)
At the center of the album is the sort-of title track, “Hearts Aglow,” which blossoms into a highlight over its nearly six-minute running time. “The whole world is crumbling / Oh baby, let’s dance in the sand,” Mering sings as the song sways like an old soul number, “‘Cause I’ve been waiting for my life to begin.”
This is a recurring motif on Hearts Aglow: Things are bad. We’ve lost our way. Here’s hoping we find it soon. Which is a long way of saying Mering sounds like she feels cornered by the current state of things and unsettled about our future. It is a testament to her skill and vision as a musician that she can make such circumstances sound so good.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.
Revisit a 2015 Weyes Blood performance from the Paste archives below.