In Homecoming, soldier Walter Cruz tells the story of a practical joke. Another man on his base, Lensky, was obsessed with Titanic. He watched it every night. So Cruz and his friends began to tell Lensky about the sequel, Titanic Rising. Of course, Titanic Rising doesn’t exist. But they talked about it enough to convince Lensky it was real, driving him to desperately look for the film. Soon after, Lensky was killed in action. When Cruz begins telling the story, he’s laughing to himself. He remembers it as funny. But as he gets to the end, his expression becomes puzzled. What was funny in deployment suddenly sounds cruel and horrific back home. For Cruz, the disconnect is unsettling.
Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering named her newest record after a made-up sequel to the second highest grossing film of all time: Titanic Rising. Why? The joke from Homecoming was that there is no imaginable material for a sequel to Titanic. It’s an impossibility. Not coincidentally, this is what many Mering’s characters also face. Love in the face of catastrophic climate change, complete movie stardom, true connection—the narrators of these songs want things they know they cannot have.
Titanic Rising makes some crucial changes to the Weyes Blood formula. Mering has always been focused on music of the past. She’s always pulled heavily from ’70s folk, but on previous records, she was faithfully reproducing that aesthetic. On Titanic Rising, she has made a visionary shift toward convergence. Her songwriting is still rooted in the same era (although her focus has moved to baroque pop), but Tangerine Dream’s progressive electronic oceans and Laurie Anderson vocoders swirl around the guitars and pianos. In the simplest sense, Titanic Rising sends Mering to space. But the atmosphere of the record is not so easy to parse. It’s psychedelic, like if Fleetwood Mac dropped acid, and sometimes even then it’s downright alien, awakening the forgotten image of a UFO descending into a Kansas cornfield. In one word, it’s monumental.
The success of this record is staggering. With each passing song, I thought I heard the “standout” track, and I wrote it down in my notes. When I looked back over what I had written, I had every song marked as the “standout.” Maybe it’s “Everyday,” the martially jaunty ode to neediness. Or “Movies,” an Arcadian, psychotic inversion of The Carpenter’s “Superstar.” The consistency is evidence of a songwriter at the peak of her power. The marriage of sounds on this record colors it with an itchy sense of unease. The melodies are preternaturally familiar, yet there aren’t any FM radio hits that end in horror movie soundtrack synths or fight against harsh strings in the chorus, at least not any I can remember. Instead, we are forced to sit in the disconnect.
Many tracks feature a subtle atonality. In “A Lot’s Gonna Change,” rubbery synths scrub right below the surface, and the complete collapse of the orchestra in “Everyday” ends the biggest pop moment of the record on a sour note. The destruction of surroundings, as well as connection between antithetical genres and people, is the recurring theme of Titanic Rising.
“And I see it so clearly/That we play a part/Yes, we love our love/Most of all,” Mering sings on “Mirror Fever.” This devotion to the idea of affection rather than their relationship renders a separation between Mering and her partner. On Andromeda, she describes an equanimity with being alone: “Stop calling/It’s time to let me be/If you think you can save me/I’d dare you to try.” These lyrics find the pulse of broken romance, something that Mering’s narrators can’t seem to crawl out of. References to the horrific effects of climate change abound, from the waters running by Mering on “Something to Believe” and the million burning people burning in “Wild Time” show the massive devastation happening around our little lives. Humanity’s desperate longing for connection in a world falling apart is a timely and iterative theme here.
Mering’s touchstone on this record are bands like The Carpenters, whose music feels just a little too earnest and emotional for 2019. There is an open-hearted-ness in songs like “Close to You” that Titanic Rising inhabits to its fullest. But it’s not just optimism filling Karen Carpenter’s (and Natalie Mering’s) voice with so much emotion. It’s also a deep sadness. Karen never manages to get near her object of affection, instead left to say things like, “Why do stars fall down from the sky/Every time you walk by?/Just like me, they long to be/Close to you.” Mering taps into this as well. Nearly every song on Titanic Rising is filled with a certain kind of loneliness.
And so, at times, it can feel like Mering is being sarcastic. When she sings “I’ve got a case of the empties” on “Something to Believe,” the humor belies the sadness. But by the end, as she pleas for conviction, laughter is a distant thought. “Something to Believe” also features some of the most fastidious orchestration on the record. At first, it’s overwhelming. The harpsichords and harmonies are almost oppressively lush. But the too-much-ness is the point. Titanic Rising burrows down to moments when we carry the world on our shoulders. The narrators find themselves overwhelmed with emotions, and so the instrumentals reflect this. The aesthetics and themes reinforce each other to a point of pure cohesion.
The record also has two instrumental interludes, one at the end of each side. “Titanic Rising” is all space ambient squeals and blips, chiming and reverberating across an expansive landscape. And “Nearer to Thee” is all strings, soaring into oblivion. Each is an enveloping 90 seconds, and both end far too soon. In Mering’s hands, these two tracks use different means for the same ends. It’s her smartest statement, partially because of its elegant simplicity. Mering begs for an aesthetic equality, one in which we recognize melodrama and corny electronics as radical sincerity.
The emotional ending of Titanic Rising is “Picture Me Better,” a song dripping with so much wide eyed naïveté that it practically begs for you to laugh in its face. But Mering’s final words of the record are casually affecting: “Waiting for the call from beyond/Waiting for something with meaning/To come through soon.” As the world falls apart in front of our very eyes, aren’t we all?