In her 1952 debut novel, Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor wrote about Hazel Motes, a discharged World War II veteran who abandoned his birthright fundamentalism to preach an anti-faith gospel in mid-century Tennessee. That kind of foundational upheaval was something that inspired Natalie Mering, who, nearly 50 years later, while in high school in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, would adopt O’Connor’s book title as her own stage name—before changing it to Weyes Bluhd when she was running a radio show and studying music at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She grew up in a born-again Pentecostal Christian household, but quickly began worshiping the undoings of Christian framework, in practice and in song. In Mering’s work, gothic imagery from the Book of Revelation quickly gave way to picturesque depictions of a new millennium ransacked by fascism, capitalism and a million broken hearts.
Now 34, Mering has lived long enough in the warmth of Los Angeles that she’s been missing the seasons that transform the East Coast. The algorithms, however, are out of whack, as climate change ravages the planet, and the expiration dates of the weather, of the leaves turning, now zigzag between months. It’s snowing in May; there are heat waves in November. The oblivion Motes embraced in Wise Blood takes contemporary shape as a voluntary neglect of the environment and the health of our peers, while a systematic, generational divide overpowers community in America. Under her current stage name Weyes Blood, Mering often toys with conceptual themes of how our world is disintegrating, both physically and emotionally.
Mering’s newest LP, And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow, picks up right where Titanic Rising left us in 2019. Even the album covers bear similar imagery. On the latter, Mering is underwater in a bedroom, suspended in an oceanic ether above a wine-red carpet. Light pours in through the billowing, jellyfish-translucent curtains. It’s as if she’s stranded and the shipwreck has not yet sunken to the seabed. On the cover of Hearts Aglow, Mering appears to still be below the surface, her hair drifting through the water like a slow-motion wave, her chest, quite literally, bursting with a sun-red gleam. There’s a stillness afoot, a rubble above ready to be pieced back together. And Mering is standing atop the debris.
When Titanic Rising came out three years ago, the world was already fucked, let’s be honest. On Zoom, Mering speaks about how those who stockpiled clout through weaponizing climate change denial are now reaping what they’ve sown and unable to turn away from the truth. “It’s just so obvious that nobody can really deny it anymore,” she says. “That’s a crazy transformation to go through, especially when so little is being done about it.” The environmental longevity of Earth now doesn’t look much different than it did in 2019, technically speaking. But from an emotional point-of-view, it feels exponentially worse. After spending two years locked inside, unable to make due with the erosion happening outside our windows, the years have blurred together and so, too, have our perceptions of what downfall awaits us. “There is this sense of togetherness. Most people, before the pandemic, might have had a season of their life that might have been a little anxious or depressed,” Mering reasons. “But I think, since then, there’s so many people that have been dealing with anxiety and depression on a level that’s a little unprecedented, so I see it how it is. And in a lot of ways, even if certain people act like everything’s okay, I do think most people are uncertain.”
Hearts Aglow is not a record about COVID-19 as much as it is a record about how the pandemic factors into the current onslaught of personal anxiety and cancerous capitalism—how everybody is hurting and loneliness is one of the last non-politicized emotions. On lead single “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” Mering professes: “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 apart of one big thing.”
Though some folks have re-entered the post-pandemic world, if you can even call it that, comfortably, others have remained hesitant. And while money influences most things, especially the re-opening of businesses and dropped mask mandates, many of us are tasked with finding some kind of romance or hope in a deterioration prolonged by those who wish to bend toward the sunlight of capitalistic vultures. On “Hearts Aglow,” Mering attempts to reassess by eulogizing the last two years with an embrace of rebirth. “‘Cause it’s been a death march / The whole world is crumbling / Oh baby let’s dance in the sand / ‘Cause I’ve been waiting for my life to begin / For someone / To light up my heart again,” she sings.
Across Mering’s discography, there’s always been a looming sense of chaos, a dystopian fallout either already in the midst of its ravages, or about to bubble over and wipe us out. “For me, [the chaos] got more amplified the more that everything kept seeming like it was falling apart,” she says. “It was like, ‘What was I going to do with this existential sense of dread or this uncertainty about what was happening to the social fabric, and to the idea of what our future should be versus what it’s going to be?’” The connective tissue of ever-looming end times that Mering sings about stems from her own empathy for everyone around her. In conversation, she likens her outlook on humanity to the statues of Mother Mary “crying the tears of the world.” Mering’s songwriting is intimate in the way it finds community within catastrophe. “I just started feeling like I needed to say something about the nuanced disillusionment of it all, and that was more important,” she recalls.
Mering began making Hearts Aglow similarly to her previous records: She wrote the songs on piano or guitar and worked through their roots with friend and collaborator Jonathan Rado, before adding more players into the studio. Cellist Jacob Braun, guitarist Meg Duffy of Hand Habits, harpist Mary Lattimore, backing vocalist and atmospheric videogame composer Ben Babbitt, and Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, fill out the songs, while Mering stands auspiciously in the middle. But a lot of the time, her songwriting is a result of very individual, analog exercises. Hearts Aglow is the most triumphal Weyes Blood project to date, as her ambition reveals itself through poised, reverent lyricism and a grander population of instruments. Listen closely and you might just hear a tuba in “Children of the Empire.” In “God Turn Me Into a Flower,” Mering’s and Lopatin’s synths fade into a series of field recordings. Across the tracklist, there’s sonic symbolism, or, as she calls it, “nature’s noise.”
As with her previous albums, Mering’s new music arrives like something culled from the Carpenters’ songbook, but with the emotional weight of a Gregorian chant that hollows you down to the bone. With any artist whose work conjures elements of bygone eras, the word “nostalgic” gets tossed around. Mering is trying to distance herself from that word, opting instead for the use of “sentimentality.” “There’s something about nostalgia that’s really dark,” she says. “If you look at it in a capitalistic sense, like, ‘We’re gonna make everything change so fast so that we can sell something to you from the past, because you’re gonna miss it so much,’ it’s big in our culture, I think, because we’re so lost.”
To Mering, sentimentality is more important because you can pull meaning from it. For her, it’s rotting leaves in an autumnal fall, when it’s colder and the shadows hit harder. “I think it’s important to take stock of every experience you’ve had, so I do feel like I time-travel a bit,” Mering says. “But I do think, in some ways, our perception of time is so distorted that nostalgia could be a distortion. Thinking it was better than it was, I have to be careful not to fetishize the past.” Weyes Blood tunes are emblematic of bygone eras, like film intermission overtures or storms of violas filling concert halls. But Mering’s compositions dare to preserve her past without over-saturating its importance at the expense of the present moment. It turns out, you can have too much of a good thing, and Mering wants to keep her beloved memories somewhat esoteric. “I think human suffering has always been a thing,” she says. “What we deal with now, though, is this unlimited archive of media from history, and it’s easy to consume it and feel your own feels about it, versus what it was actually like.”
The war between nostalgia and sentimentality is timeless and supersedes generation, however. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, there is a scene where a father-son bond, even in the ruins of a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland, is strengthened by the syrupy goodness of a lone, expired can of Coca-Cola. This fall, McDonald’s sold overpriced Adult Happy Meals with plastic, overproduced toys marketed as “collectibles.” The music of Weyes Blood does not flirt with that war, because Mering’s work is not a commodity, but rather an extension of the happiness that is so often bartered for survival.
Being a millennial caught in the purgatory of a pre-smartphone and pre-internet era that was trapped in the Gen-X-ordained, neoliberal class stratification of the late-1990s, she does sometimes lean into the cynicism that has plagued her peers. That’s why the vulnerability present in songs like “Grapevine” and “A Given Thing” is rooted in the sentimentality of mystical homesickness and the Electric Light Orchestra-evoking end to destructive love, in the living emotions shared between two energies. Instead of selling a memory to her audiences, Mering is inviting them to live in her translations of grief and fascination with a generational confusion that she, and others, haven’t yet cracked.
Mering’s albums, too, have always been a little bit morose and foreboding, with lyrics laying a keen eye on the tics of humanity that may birth something we can’t undo. The records are orchestral, symphonic, operatic—the modern-day equivalent to some labored concerto, without the powdered wigs or all the hand-waving. And Mering’s singular soprano stands in the middle of it all, echoing amongst a colony of baroque instruments. You can trace her voice’s roots back as far as childhood, when she was raised on films of Hollywood’s Golden Age and Judy Garland songs. “That was how I learned how to sing, so I feel really close to that kind of chord structure,” Mering says.
She cut her teeth on experimental noise music, as she was trying to forge her own sound, which she calls a “deconstruction.” She was a part of an off-the-wall counterculture that had hubs in every American city, small districts of warehouses brimming with art students putting on weird exhibitions and shows. “I just got swept up in it,” Mering says. “People used to go to those shows and [there was] a lot of energy and a lot of freedom. I wanted to be on the frontier more than I wanted to be classic, just because it was so exciting.”
Her vision of the frontier was, and is, one of futuristic, fresh work that undoes the sonic boundaries. Mering claims to not have a musical identity deep down inside, because she loves such a wide spectrum of music—which stems from the elasticity of bands from her childhood, like Sonic Youth and Nirvana, who redefined what mainstream and underground work could look like in a shifting cultural and political climate. “I believed that my generation was going to have their version of that, but we definitely didn’t,” Mering says. “It was, after that, Hanson and Matchbox 20, Spice Girls and NSYNC, Britney [Spears]. It all just devolves into a very weird form of pop that I have since then grown to love. But at the time, I was like, ‘Oh my god, what is happening?’”
The infinite parameters of pop music play an important role on Hearts Aglow, as she taps into the archetypes of the genre—culling balladry, theatrics, rhapsodic choirs and soft rock from her arsenal of musical riches. The centerpiece of the album, penultimate track “The Worst Is Done,” might, at the end of the day, be Mering’s greatest work to date, six minutes of bubblegum, choral folk-rock. In many ways, the apocalypse on Hearts Aglow is an ambiguous one. However, on “The Worst Is Done,” an upbeat cut as chuffed as “Everyday,” Mering aims directly at how the pandemic affected her life, in an oracular ode to the “long strange year” where everyone turned sad and lost their voices. Something she’s often articulated on her albums is the idea that coming-of-age is not a trope tethered to a particular subset of people—that, especially in the time of COVID, no one is immune to a change of course in their lives. “Got kinda old / It happened to me quickly / Burned down the house / Waiting for someone to save me / From this hall of mirrors,” she sings on the track, riffing on hyper-isolation before proclaiming that the worst is yet to come.
What makes Mering’s songwriting so urgent is how she combs through the unease permeating all of our psyches. Yes, the global temperatures have risen nearly two full degrees in 100 years’ time. Yes, there is surely going to be another spike in COVID cases soon. Glaciers are shrinking and sea levels are rising. Mering takes these undeniable facts and articulates them in a way that makes sense to those of us itching for some kind of liberation from the chaos barking at our doors. But we can’t outrun what’s coming to us—that is the point of Hearts Aglow. When Mering sings, “Livin’ in a lost time / The dawning of a brand new man / So much blood on our hands / The king and queen of being lonely / Children of the empire see / That we’re all lost,” on “Children of the Empire,” she is talking about the nuances of vanishing en masse—how we must find each other and attempt to preserve what little tomorrow we have left.
Where on her captivating 2016 LP Front Row Seat to Earth, and on Titanic Rising, the ever-growing digital age was breaking her heart, Hearts Aglow finds Mering questioning whether she, and everyone else, will ever fall back in love with the quiet spaces between the tumult. “I think there was this hope that, post-pandemic, we’d all get back together and really rebuild this new world,” Mering says. “And I think, unfortunately, we leaned into our phones even more, and the people that shouldn’t have gotten more rich just got exponentially more rich. It’s a little insult to injury, and I think that’s also perpetuating this feeling of malaise.” The forests are thinning, it’s going to take a colossal wad of cash to buy back the ice caps and we can no longer toddle romantically in the foreground of doom.
In a lot of ways, Hearts Aglow is a record about hope. The lingering armageddon that awaited Mering and the rest of us on Titanic Rising has arrived. It’s now time to act, to pick ourselves up and make our home better, somehow. It’s a tall task, to play our hearts out in spite of a lopsided score. There are no easy comebacks, but, as long as we have our sentimentalities—the familiar smells, feelings and wonders—surely we can reconstruct everything we once loved, even if it takes longer than seven days. “I think most people knew there was going to be repercussions that last five years or more, but there’s so much other stuff added to it, besides just being discombobulated,” Mering notes. “It does feel a bit like, ‘Are we ever going to get back to a hopeful spot?’”
After Hazel Motes blinded himself with quicklime in protest of the “prophets” reaping riches from his ministry, he wrapped barbed wire around his torso and walked into a thunderstorm. Later in Wise Blood, he is beaten to death by police, but by the novel’s end, when a woman named Mrs. Flood begins caring for Motes’ corpse, she believes she can see a light gleaming beyond the emptiness in his dead eyes. Familiarizing herself with O’Connor’s own storytelling techniques, Mering uses resplendent imagery to expose the damning ethos of plutocratic puppeteers drunk on greed and taking advantage of vulnerable people. And like Mrs. Flood, Mering can see the glow of the world within its own ruins.
And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow is not a litany of gripes, but rather an expression of outrage for how the world surrounding Mering and the people she loves is quickly shrinking into an unromantic and fatalistic shell of itself. Clout, neoliberalism, climate change denial and generational divide are shouldering us into an unkind future. But as Mering argues in her songs, maybe that unkindness has been here the entire time, and now we are primed to create our own utopic versions of love that might save the places we’ve been. There’s a spirituality there, in the ways we often must cast aside our own misgivings in order to manifest a world in which we all can be unguarded. There’s a catharsis on Hearts Aglow that sings with hope, transcendence and sacrifice. The desolation awaiting us is unlikely to yield, but we can fight our way through it together. And perhaps, once the dust clears, there will be many more years where our hearts can still covet the seasons changing on the other side of the country.
And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow
is out Friday, Nov. 18, on Sub Pop.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.
Revisit a 2015 Weyes Blood performance from the Paste archives below.