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Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising is a stunning early contender for album of the year

Weyes Blood’s <i>Titanic Rising</i> is a stunning early contender for album of the year
Photo: Kathryn Vetter Miller, Graphic: Libby McGuire
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Natalie Mering was a gifted child, to say the least. Weathering a life-altering move at age 10 from Santa Monica to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a small town of just over 8,000 residents, she would retreat to her teenage bedroom, adorned with stuffed animals, posters of celebrities, and various sports trophies, a scene that was recreated for the cover of her new record. It was a tough move. “It took my parents almost 13 years to make friends in Pennsylvania. For the first 13 years, our whole family was like, ‘What the fuck is going on? What is this all about?’ We could not wrap our heads around Pennsylvania,” Mering says. And while she individually made some close friends there, she never quite gelled with the personalities around her, always feeling like she was on the periphery, an outcast 3,000 miles from home.

Though she felt the social pressures of the ordinary suburban teenager, what she did in the confines of her room was anything but: She spent her time inventing instruments and recording noise tapes.

“I have this instrument that I built in high school called the harmonics guitar,” Mering, who records under the moniker Weyes Blood, says. “It’s a 6-foot-long stringed instrument with a bridge in the middle, and you play the left side of the bridge so the harmonics are the only things that are picked up by the pickup. It sounds very like a squid in space, alien sounds.”

That instrument and the bizarre soundscapes it was responsible for throughout Mering’s high school recordings are present all across the forthcoming Titanic Rising, Weyes Blood’s fourth release to date and first for heavyweight indie label Sub Pop. The resulting album, a gorgeous collection of ’70s-inspired singer-songwriter rock interspersed with curious synth parts, greatly benefits from the artist’s decision to incorporate her weirder past, looking backwards toward her adolescence in suburban Philadelphia for inspiration as she enters her 30s. By tapping into her more experimental musical upbringing, Mering makes it even tougher to place the record in any sort of genre-specific box, with otherworldly song transitions and an instrumental track that could only be the work of someone who invented the instrument itself.

This newfound experimentation with sampling her teenage music and exploring more ambient sounds was encouraged by producer Jonathan Rado, one half of the duo Foxygen. He’s worked on some of the biggest retro-influenced indie-rock records of the last half decade, including Father John Misty’s God’s Favorite Customer, Whitney’s Light Upon The Lake, and The Lemon Twigs’ Do Hollywood. (“I feel like I’m the lost sister!” Mering exclaims about the brothers comprising The Lemon Twigs, who perform throughout Titanic Rising.) Over time, Rado has given artists progressively more control in the studio, pushing them to play with different recording techniques and use instruments in new ways.

“As much as we were having fun with the songs, we wanted to leave some space for our first love, which was ambient stuff,” Mering explains in a gorgeous hotel room in Williamsburg, gazing out upon the Manhattan skyline. “I haven’t had that kind of feeling in a collaborator in music for a long time. Rado is more about the lack of form. It was fun to deconstruct and get back to the primordial soup of sound-making.”

Rado, who is known for his sometimes unorthodox recording techniques—he once invented a 24-track tape loop that would spin around the studio, and recorded its warbly sound in transit on last year’s Houndmouth album—pushed Mering to look to her instrument-inventing past and try to do it again, even if the resulting sounds didn’t make the final mix.

“We built this thing trying to copy Frippertronics,” Mering explains. “Robert Fripp is the guitarist from King Crimson who built an early loop machine, which was two reel-to-reels feeding into each other. We spent, like, two days trying to make Frippertronics, but it wasn’t quite Frippertronics. It was our own weird version, so we called it Radotronics. It was just two reel-to-reels feeding into each other, and we would record different sound effects and things and they would be re-recorded as an echo. It was a tape delay sometimes, then a loop other times, and then other times just an unexplainable problem chaos machine that would just generate the most spaced-out, weird sounds. It’s how we made the track ‘Titanic Rising.’”

Recorded over a period of three months at Sonora Studio, an unassuming building mere yards from the Los Angeles River in Los Feliz and jokingly home to Elliott Smith’s ghost (he partly recorded Figure 8 there some 20 years ago), the sessions marked a period where Mering pushed herself to try new techniques, including recording to a 24-track, 2-inch-thick tape—Rado’s trademark—which forced Mering to accept potential mistakes in the final product.

“There are no audible mistakes, it’s just that not everything is absolutely perfect,” she explains. “Like, maybe a drum fill is a little slow or the song starts at a different tempo and ends at a different tempo. Certain aspects of one instrument are slightly not perfectly in tune, but these are all things that, to me, create music that sounds more alive. If you think of The Beatles, they weren’t perfectly in tune—and you can hear it. We avoided click tracks and avoided pasting everything together in a perfect grid, which I think is how most music is made now. That’s the looseness or the accidents that happened—we just happened to speed up at that one part on that take, and that’s in there forever.”

For an album that’s not “perfect,” it sure sounds extremely close. Titanic Rising is a dazzling study in songwriting, pushing the limits of what a “folk” singer—a label Mering has decried in the past—can sound like in 2019. From the eerie opening synth line on “A Lot’s Gonna Change,” which calls to mind the Annihilation score, to its stunning string reprise on “Nearer To Thee,” a reference to the hymn allegedly performed as the RMS Titanic sank, Mering provides the ultimate album bookends, even if that wasn’t the original intention. The inclusion of that final instrumental—following the LP’s biggest emotional crescendo in “Wild Time” and the starkly beautiful “Picture Me Better”—feels like Mering’s grand statement. A moment in which she and Rado can sit back and simply revel in the beauty they created together.

“When I was mixing, that’s when it became apparent to me that the isolated strings of ‘A Lot’s Gonna Change’ are just so beautiful,” Mering remembers. “I never had the chance to work with strings until now, and it’s just such a big dream come true. I felt like ending the piece with the string quartet, mimicking the theme on the first song, it’s maybe the best kind of cap to put on the whole kit and caboodle, and then having it return to the synth sample of the string arrangement. Brian D’Addario wrote the string arrangement, and before we recorded the strings, he just played the part on a synth. I remember hearing that like a ghost of the first process of recording, and I was like, ‘We’ve got to find a way to bring that all back in.’ From the string quartet to the synth to the song, ‘A Lot’s Gonna Change,’ it’s almost all like one piece.”

Titanic Rising is largely influenced by the role of film in Mering’s life, making references to her personal connection to the film Titanic as a teenager and dedicating an entire song to the follies of believing in the romance we see on the silver screen (“Movies”). The video for “Everyday” even nods to Friday The 13th. So it makes total sense that the record would play like a soundtrack to the protagonist’s hero’s journey, subtly transitioning from more upbeat major-key tracks to darker ones, only to end on a stark emotional high note.

“When you get into ‘Titanic Rising’ into ‘Movies’ into ‘Mirror Forever,’ into ‘Wild Times,’ you’re going down into the caves of humanity,” Mering explains of the album’s sequencing. “You’re getting deeper into the psychological impact of watching too many movies, into a modern relationship, into overpopulation. It’s the content that’s a little heavier than the beginning, which is more like, ‘Yeah, a lot’s going to change, it’s hard to date, and we all need a little something to believe.’ There’s the hope and then it gets a little dark, but then it comes back with some hope.”

Titanic Rising is a labor of love for an artist finally given the tools to write the album of her literal dreams, a record for which she can go on a five-minute monologue about the meaning behind each lyric. She notes the line “True love is making a comeback,” from “Everyday” is “symbolic of Tinder and how fast everybody moves. I think because of that, the pendulum will inevitably swing to the other side when people are going to be fascinated by monogamy and cultivating more long-lasting connections. I don’t actually see it as ‘Oh my god, this is so negative and so bad!’ I think it’s actually really funny.” Afforded the opportunity to make the record with a producer who not only gave her free rein to explore the weird and ambient music of her past, but in fact pushed her to “fuck it up,” Mering has created far and away the finest album of her already accomplished career and an early contender as one of the best releases of the year.

In April of last year, one day before entering the studio to begin work on Titanic Rising, Rado exclaimed, “I just think she’s one of our greatest living voices,” adding that “there was no decision [to work with Mering]. I don’t need to hear the album. I’m in.”

At the time, his statement felt more than a bit hyperbolic. But a year later, on the eve of Titanic Rising’s release, it’s easy to hear what he meant. Mering, having crafted a nearly pitch-perfect record, is not just approaching the realm of “greatest living voices.” She might already be there.