We use the word “apocalypse” to mean catastrophe, though the Greek word it’s derived from signifies a revelation. Natalie Mering opens her fifth album, And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow, with a small one of her own. She’s at a party, surrounded by people, and yet she feels unseen — no, it’s more complicated than that. Maybe these partygoers see her as Weyes Blood, the noise experimentalist turned folk-pop auteur whose records are smart, ambitious and acclaimed, whose voice was described in a recent New Yorker profile as sounding like “a cool hand on a fevered brow.” Maybe they follow her wry, reserved online persona. But do any of them know her, really? One could argue it’s unhealthy to dwell on such things, but surely we’ve all been there anyway. Then comes that revelation, over woodwinds and strings: beautifully, her case isn’t special. “We’ve all become strangers, even to ourselves,” Mering sings, her tone as bracing as spring water, and continues: “Mercy is the only cure for being so lonely.”
That song, “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” was the album’s enchanting lead single, and with its release this September Mering also published a letter. “I was asking a lot of questions while writing these songs, and hyper isolation kept coming up,” it read in typewriter font. “Our culture relies less and less on people. This breeds a new, unprecedented level of isolation. The promise we can buy our way out of that emptiness offers little comfort in the face of fear we all now live with — the fear of becoming obsolete.” The themes she goes on to mention (technology, capitalism, narcissism) are of a strain that haunts my more thoughtful group chats, where conversation often returns to how weirdly anti-social the current moment feels; admittedly, they look a little obvious typed out. But to state its themes plainly undersells Hearts Aglow which, through stark truths and dreamy poetry, brushes against big ideas about our broken world and quiet apocalypses of her own: it’s an ecosystem of intimacy, in its power to redeem and to destroy.
Mering has been known to swing for the fences; the native Californian’s last album, 2019’s highly praised Titanic Rising (the first in a trilogy, which Hearts Aglow follows), channeled the soft psychedelia of the Manson-era Laurel Canyon into songs “about” imminent earthly collapse. I use quotation marks with something of a personal grievance, regarding the tendency of contemporary critics to treat art like moral theater, as if you could express what’s great about a record or a film with a list of timely thematic talking points. Meanwhile, Mering conducts small orchestras, deploys her timeless alto with instinctive precision, and writes lyrics that, in their simplicity, expand toward infinity in the manner of a haiku or a prayer. Sometimes on Hearts Aglow they’re explicitly to do with post-pandemic social wreckage: it is what it is on “The Worst Is Done” as Mering, strumming her guitar along blithely, sings, “It’s been a long, strange year / Everyone’s sad.” At other times we find ourselves tramping a lantern-lit path through dark woods (“Grapevine”) or swinging over black waves on a boardwalk Ferris wheel (“Hearts Aglow”); the heart races. Mering’s writing resonates deepest in moments like these, swept up in the senses.
There comes to mind a wonderful song about an apocalypse by the country singer Skeeter Davis. In 1962’s “The End of the World,” the crisis is not that the Earth has stopped spinning, but that it continues to. “Why does the sun go on shining? Why does the sea rush to shore?” Davis wonders in her unfussy twang. “Don’t they know it’s the end of the world? ‘Cause you don’t love me anymore…” (Boom: a revelation and a catastrophe; our fleeting private disasters, more ruinous than floods or earthquakes.) Hearts Aglow‘s title track, the album’s lovestruck midpoint — which shares with Davis’ ballad a yearning chord progression of the soda fountain variety — bathes Mering in carnival neon and radiant new love, mending for a moment the world’s brokenness. Still, there’s a sense of vertigo. We know what’s to come after “Hearts Aglow” — two suites of songs mired in profound loneliness bookend it — and sometimes I rewind the track a couple times before the veil is ripped from the truth.
After a young adulthood spent screaming in grindcore bands or trying to out-dissonance her peers in male-dominated, DIY noise spheres, Mering has spoken poignantly about coming around to softness and grace — ideals, she’s learned, that were never actually in contradiction to real art. (It felt like poetic justice last year when Mering’s name appeared among the credits of Lana Del Rey‘s Chemtrails Over the Country Club, no less for a Joni Mitchell cover: a meeting of two of America’s most beguiling songwriters, for whom feminine vulnerability has been a passageway to transcendental realms.) And so from a concept record “about” our fractured society emerges an earnest, if not entirely straightforward, breakup album. On “Grapevine,” synths and strings swirl below the surface of a frontier ballad, as a stubborn cowboy pulls his love away; “California’s my body, and your fire runs over me,” Mering sings, her home state’s signature apocalypse becoming her own. By the final track, “A Given Thing,” Mering is alone; it’s the only song without a backing band — mainly just a woman and her piano, performing a tragedy of codependence. “Sometimes our love is everlasting,” she sings. “Sometimes we confuse the dream for one another.” She had seen in someone else the remedy for suffering, and the illusion shattered. The sun goes on shining, the sea rushes to shore and love, in its benevolence, carries on elsewhere.
On “God Turn Me Into a Flower,” as a church organ is joined slowly by cello, violin and the most sublime synth arrangement you’ll hear this year (courtesy of Oneohtrix Point Never‘s Daniel Lopatin), Mering delivers an astonishing hymn to softness. It’s also, elliptically, the story of Narcissus, our go-to cautionary tale about the perils of self-obsession — though that isn’t what Ovid’s story warns us of exactly. “O may he love himself alone, and yet fail in that great love,” is the curse bestowed upon the aloof pretty boy, and when he finds himself beside a dark pool in the deep woods, gaze locked with his own reflection, what he’s experiencing isn’t vanity — it’s an identity crisis. Narcissus mistakes his own image for another, someone who smiles when he smiles and weeps, too, in synchronicity, who ripples and fades when his hand reaches out and unwittingly punctures the illusion. In that way, it’s also a crisis of intimacy — to believe that someone else could mirror you in perfect harmony, and in that harmony you would be redeemed. Narcissus wastes away there by the pool, and in place of his body grows a flower; some would call it punishment, the conclusion of his curse. Instead, Mering renders it as an honor — transcending individuality to exist in perfect natural communion, bending in accordance with the wind.