Monday, June 10, 2019

album review: 'titanic rising' by weyes blood

So I'll admit I find myself a little fascinated by the 'critically acclaimed indie blow-up' story, mostly because I'm curious whether they are genuinely as calculated as they might appear from the sidelines. 

And you know how it goes: an indie act who normally has put in a few albums that are well-received but never quite beloved or super-popular suddenly goes to put out a project, and it seems like without warning a majority of critics have decided this is the one to get onboard with this artist, their time is now, and the critical acclaim is so pronounced it almost seems extraordinary. Normally it's when the act puts out their most accessible project but not always - hell, at some points you find yourself wondering what the hell is so distinctive about this one that will drive folks bananas. And this doesn't tend to happen for the consistent critical darlings or your more widely popular hipster mainstays or even your one-and-done flukes, which often leaves me wondering why the hell it's this album or it's this artist. The criterion feels nebulous, and I kind of feel sorry for the artists who might see their hype balloon for one album before all of it evaporating for their next when the formula doesn't change that much. 

So when we get to Natalie Mering aka. Weyes Blood... look, the signs are there this is happening to her. She's been putting out albums in the underground that split the difference between fuzzed out dream pop and more vintage baroque textures - think the opulence of the pop of the mid-60s before firmer grooves took hold in the latter half of that decade - and I've always thought they were okay enough with decent writing, but nothing that jumped off the page or I found truly riveting, both on the albums or her collaborations. And that seemed to be the critical consensus too, and yet suddenly this becomes the project that has won folks over en masse and is one of the most critically adored projects of 2019, with fans who just will not shut the fuck up about it? I'll admit that it did seem suspicious, but I was open to this potentially being amazing, so okay, intentionally very late to the punch with this, what did we get from Titanic Rising?

So I'll be honest - up until yesterday I wasn't sure if or when I'd cover this. I've been listening to it for months now off and on, but it had never quite clicked and there was the very real possibility I'd just put it on the Trailing Edge and move on. But then yesterday I put up a Twitter poll with options for me to cover either AURORA, Silversun Pickups, or 'something else'... well, the 'something else' option won and I figured given that there is still interest behind this project and the critical embers haven't been diminished from any quarter, I might as well give it one more chance. And... look folks, sometimes it doesn't get there. I hear this project and I hear something that's certain pretty and well-arranged in a blatant throwback to mid-60s pop, but it's also not something that Julia Holter or especially Angel Olsen haven't approached with more soul or poise or even just raw compositional heft. Don't get me wrong, I don't think this is bad by any means, but it feels like the equivalent of an 'Oscar bait' movie: tasteful, obviously retro, and updated just enough in the details to give the appearance of depth but feels underwhelming with more thought and will be forgotten within a year.

And here's the thing: I completely understand how a project like this would resonate with critics on its sound alone; hell, take the content on the surface into consideration and I can see its appeal getting amplified by certain historical parallels to a similar tumultuous time in music and culture. You have a lush, often beautifully arranged backdrop that Mering co-produced with Jonathan Rado of Foxygen - another artist who has built his recent career shamelessly cribbing tones from the past without complete context - where the classically trained vocals are stacked high and the pianos, strings, and guitars have an organic pickup, with the traces of modernity coming in the smoky, gurgling touches of dream-pop and psychedelic synths, ever so slightly emphasizing that rising apocalyptic tide. And I'll give Mering a lot of credit for, at least on the surface, a synthesis of old and new, that marries old-school baroque pop glamour with enough modern updates to match the unnerving cultural fatalism of the mid-to-late 60s to, well, similar apocalyptic projections now. And let me stress this isn't a new parallel - I might not give her much praise, but Lana Del Rey did see and draw a similar aesthetic and content connection on the back half of Lust For Life.

And yet you could point to a similar incomplete picture of the history of pop music in that era being why Titanic Rising strikes such an odd note for me: because if you're looking at the politically charged, transgressive music of the late 60s and very early 70s that crossed over, it didn't sound like the classically opulent baroque pop of the time. Sure, the Beatles had their psychedelic moments that got political, but even they got leaner and rougher and more experimental as the 60s continued on, rock developed more teeth as it teetered towards early metal and proto-punk, and let's not even touch on what soul and funk and R&B were doing with sharper grooves and more visceral performances. The pop that Weyes Blood and Lana Del Rey and even Portugal. The Man with 'Feel It Still', those tones might have their roots in the 60s, but not in the revolutionary side - it was the happy-go-lucky dance crazes that picked up psychedelia because it made the drugs hit a little better, or had the budget for classy, heavily-arranged opulence - and tacking on some of the country/folk touches with the pedal steel is just icing. You know, being a 'rebel just for kicks', to the point where in 1970 and the tumult of the 60s seemed to be crashing, pop music embraced even more garish opulence for increasingly stupid songs about how it was all going to be okay and wonderful, thus triggering an early 70s where the Hot 100 took a sharp nosedive in quality. Now I don't expect the majority of people or even critics to know that larger historical context - that was damn near fifty years ago, and there was likely a correct assumption that relying on pure instrumental texture and a few lyrical references to sketch the nostalgic parallel for an album riding on themes of 'life and love in the face of the apocalypse' would get all the way there. But I do expect Natalie Mering to know that context, and thus it can't help but feel jarring to hear a similar brand of subtle fatalism in the content, the attitude that doom is inevitable so might as well embrace the moment however you can, not quite succumbing to despair openly but with the larger emptiness coloring the backdrop. It's a hollow, blinkered approach that might even feel romantic on the surface - especially as Mering is a good enough writer to frame a lot of the songs as desperately optimistic - but it doesn't move me.

And that's the most frustrating thing about Titanic Rising, where even the album title and art calls to mind one of the great catastrophes of hubris at sea, where the water is now rising higher again - because on some level I can see if this had been framed more as melodrama, like Titanic the movie was, the grand swells of emotion might have worked... but Weyes Blood is too tasteful and refined for that. And I put more of the blame on the production, because I can see spots in the writing where the self-awareness almost gets there, or at the very least there could be genuine yearning power. I like how 'Andromeda' knows the far-away galaxy is no escape if you can't live here, I appreciate how she highlights the disposability of the relationships on 'Everyday' and yet I love how damn hard she yearns for it all to work on 'Mirror Forever', wishing for the stars of 'Movies' until she has to stare into her own eyes and confront a reality for which she isn't ready. And I like how the writing elevates flawed, messy humanity on the back half of the album where she wishes the love they cherish was enough to believe in amidst a world coming apart, in a wild time. And you'd think all of this would inspire the production to soar, the melodic climaxes to feel grand... but for me it always winds up feeling like the song is a half-step away from really nailing that melodic swell or ending effectively, and what's exasperating is that there's no one point to blame. I could place some of it on tempo - with two instrumental interludes we only have eight tracks with each averaging about five minutes that are nearly all midtempo, and even then the melodic transformations always feel a little too measured and poised, limited urgency where that beauty could never be properly disrupted. Oh, they're layered and dense, make no mistake about that, but a core tune outside of the vocal melody, a motif that rips off a solo or a moment of quiet to drive home a sense of dynamics... they get lost in the pomp and circumstance, and it hurts a lot these songs. I mean, imagine how effective the acoustic intimacy of 'Picture Me Better' could have been if they didn't pile up the multi-tracking and tack on strings...

But maybe that's at some of the root of this: songs like 'A Lot's Gonna Change' and 'Movies' both start with somewhat ominous, minor-key synths and in the last case almost seems to take compositional cues from Muse with its arpeggiated progressions, but while they'll open into beautiful, strings-accented lush arrangements, the groove never revs up to break free beyond the percussion just getting louder, or deliver a huge hook where Mering can cut loose vocally, or even bring the slightest hint of telling abrasion to show what's at stake - or if they do, it's a discordant moment driven off modern production and synths rather than a guitar. You can tell 'Movies' is really trying to get there with the blocky percussion and sawing strings, but in that case the layering piles up to the point where a clarion point of melodic climax from the vocals is drowned out and instead of allowing a graceful fadeout, it sounds like someone pulled the cord out of the keyboard. And that's not counting the odd percussion cadence and fizzy layering against the over-polished keening tones and flat synth foundation on 'Mirror Forever', which might have worked with the slightest hint of spare restraint or tones that felt more organic to click with Mering's delivery. I'll give credit to 'Andromeda' for the sputtering hints of psychedelic texture and pedal steel to amplify the spacey scene, especially with the organ on the third verse - it's the obvious album standout and lead-off single for a reason, especially with that melodic pivot on the hook, and a similar formula works pretty well on 'Something To Believe' too - hell, they're the few songs where a good foundational groove can convincingly materialize. But for as much as that works there, picking up the clunky Beatles-esque piano line and Beach Boys harmonies for 'Everyday' doesn't rise to more than a pastiche, even if I do like the strings there - especially with how the song self-destructs at the end, it winds up less sounding like a Beatles-esque breakdown and more like a lost, underwhelming moment from Be Here Now. And while I think 'Wild Time' is a little better thanks to its acoustic piano combination and an attempt at genuine swell with all those warbles of horns and strings pilling in for the final crescendo, it still ends with an abrupt synth burble that feels like an underwhelming payoff - if you're going for extravagant melodrama, at least let it play out!

But at the end... look, I don't mind gloriously arranged pop drama or melodrama, and Natalie Mering has the vocal control and poise to deliver both. But between the weird, fatalistic distance manufactured in its retro callback to a lack of subtler moments in production that wants to go big but misses that the best way to emphasize it are strong tunes and to go small at points for contrast... it's pretty but it feels shallower than it should be. I absolutely get the appeal, don't get me wrong, especially with how often critics have evoked the term 'cinematic', but it feels like a period piece that got enamored with the fashion and gravitas and sweeping tracking shots to miss a good script or acting at its core - not saying it's not there, but the fine details don't get the emphasis they deserve. And thus for me...  strong 6/10, and while every other critic has already praised this to hell and back, I can't. It's good, it's definitely worth a listen or two, but if this fades faster than many expect, don't say I didn't warn people.

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