At a time when most new music on the radio is unlistenable (for reference, consider Cardie B’s hit song “WAP”), and the last great pop star Taylor Swift is now adrift making political statements with her music, it’s easy to believe that current music has reached its end. Couple this with the rise of music streaming services like Spotify and iTunes, and the idea of a person discovering music on the radio and following their favorite artists is becoming as outdated as cable television or landline telephones.
Ironically, popular music (which includes rock, country, R&B, and contemporary music genres) is not all that popular anymore. With the exception of a few random hit singles that go viral on social media, most people stick with their particular musical niche or give up on music altogether. If a person is not listening to a podcast or watching a YouTube video, he’ll give in to nostalgia and listen to the “All Out ‘80s” or “‘90s Rock Anthems” compilations on his Spotify account.
For the past year, I found myself in this rut until I took a chance on my “Discover Weekly” station, and Spotify’s magic algorithm exposed me to what has to be one of the best albums to come out in decades: Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood.
At the front and center of Weyes Blood is singer/songwriter Nataile Mering. Not only is she an expert musician with a deep knowledge of sound production and older pop music, she has an amazing voice that is a perfect blend of Karen Carpenter’s rich contralto and Scott Walker’s clarity and strength. When so many other singers have to rely on electronic modulation or so many laters of instrumental arrangements, Mering’s unadulterated vocals are a much-needed change.
Titanic Rising, the third album of Weyes Blood, is truly where the band comes into its own. Their first album The Innocence is more of a concept album, exploring sound textures and harmonies from Renaissance motets. Mering's musicianship is already impressive, but most of the tracks tend to elicit more headaches than enjoyment.
Their second album Front Row Seat to Earth is much more listenable with some exceptional songs, but can feel somewhat monotonous and slow. That said, it’s the kind of album that rewards the patient listener willing to give it a few more plays.
Learning from their first two albums, Weyes Blood hits the ground running in Titanic Rising, being immediately catchy and satisfying while containing enough depth and range to reward successive play-throughs. Unlike most albums, there are no forgettable filler tracks (even the instrumental interludes offer a nice aural relief) or redundant tracks that recycle the same sounds as the intended hit single. In Titanic Rising, every song inhabits its own space and stands firmly on its own even as it complements the rest of the album.
The album’s first song “A Lot Is Gonna Change” is a theatrical opening that builds from a simple piano and voice to a fully orchestrated chorus. After this is “Andromeda,” a spacey ballad with an entrancing melody and hypnotic guitar riffs. “Everyday” changes pace with something more bouncy and cheerful, yet still tender and well arranged. In the next track, “Something to Believe,” the album slows down somewhat and carries a hopeful tone without turning cheesy.
After the quiet instrumental interlude of “Titanic Rising,” comes the epic centerpiece of the album, “Movies,” an ominous yet gorgeous song untethered by any discernible syncopation leaving it to rise and expand with melancholic vocals and synthesizer arrangement. In the next song, “Mirror Forever,” the band comes back down to earth with a certain edginess and nice guitar solos. “Wild Time” is perhaps the strongest track of the album with a steady beat, beautiful harmonies, a host of pop hooks, and complex song structure. The album ends sweetly with “Picture Me Better,” a gentle song that seems to bid the listener farewell. In the final moments is another instrumental track, which is the orchestration of “A Lot’s Gonna Change.”
For the most part, the lyrics of each song are unobtrusive and pleasantly vague, mainly having to do with love and loss. In terms of expression and tone, the music itself clearly takes precedence, and Mering is smart enough not ruin her songs with distracting lyrics that try too hard. Perhaps her most interesting verses come up in “Movies,” which seems to comment on the narcissism brought about by entertainment on the screen.
Some people might criticize Titanic Rising as unoriginal and incorrigibly retro. However, the restraint and mastery of the production overcomes this objection. True, Weyes Blood doesn’t break any new ground, imitating the instrumental arrangements of bands like Electric Light Orchestra, the rich harmonies of groups like The Zombies, and the mellow song structures of musicians like Neil Young and Air Supply. But, it also happens to do all of these things better, and it profits from today’s cleaner and more balanced sound production.
Others might criticize the album for its lack of edginess and spunk, but such a criticism belies a certain immaturity in the listener. Weyes Blood is not intended for angry, hyperactive youth. Nor is it easy listening meant to sit alongside Norah Jones or Regina Spektor on the Starbucks playlist. Rather, it is music that stands apart from most of today’s offerings, both in its intelligence and execution as well as its authenticity and accessibility.
As fans have noted, Titanic Rising truly lives up to its own title, rising from the dark waters of current music, reviving strong songwriting and careful album pacing. It is work of brilliance, but also a work of love. Natalie Mering pays homage to her influences while pushing ahead with something of her own—one might be tempted to call this a kind of creative conservatism. It’s not flashy, or rebellious, or poppy; it just happens to be a masterpiece that restore one’s enthusiasm in today’s music.
Photo Credit: Le Devoir