Singing to Say No to Cinematic Fantasies

"Titanic Rising" is an album that dispels the fantasies presented by film

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Titanic Rising is a record to drown in. The fourth studio album by Weyes Blood is massive in scope, filled with layered string arrangements and synths that sound like an alien playing the organ.

Natalie Mering, the woman behind Weyes Blood, partially credits her Californian roots and relatives in creative industries with inspiring an early interest in film. Titanic Rising is all about the fantasies peddled by cinema, the way the films we watch and the media we consume populate our minds and impact our relationships, to each other, to ourselves, to the planet. The album cover is a snapshot of this idea; Natalie Mering stands in a completely submerged bedroom, curtains billowing behind a desk bearing an old-fashioned laptop. Posters for various bands and films hang on the walls. Mering, with slightly bent knees and one arm half-raised, looks caught in the act, making the image seem candid despite its strange subject matter. According to Mering, the submerged room represents the subconscious mind, the careful clutter symbolizing the pop-culture altars teens arrange to neatly express and summarize their personalities and their worlds.

This callback to teenage attempts at cosmology is evident on the first song on Titanic Rising, “A Lot’s Gonna Change”. The album opens with a dramatic synth melody, something that sounds like it should accompany a summer blockbuster’s title credits appearing on screen in the biggest possible letters. You know you’re in for a treat. The synths cut out abruptly, and over soft piano, Mering sings about going back to a time when she had “the whole world gently wrapped around” herself. She has a voice like a roll of film unspooling, operatic and almost old-fashioned in its lushness, as she sings to her younger self about all the things that will change in her lifetime – rising water levels, dying trees, friends and family lost. The threats of climate change, natural disaster, and floods in particular, are omnipresent on the album, and yet, it manages not to be depressing. This is in part due to the instrumentation on the record. The strings nearly bowl you over in their vastness, and the synths and organs are a whole space opera in their own right.

At the same time, Natalie Mering’s penchant for internal and slant rhymes give her lyrics an unexpectedly close, off-kilter feel. Her absurdist sense of humour comes through in the music video for “Everyday”, a song about momentary romantic connections that can be meaningful even in how brief they are. The upbeat, plodding piano chords lend the music video its inexorable tempo, as a group of friends partying in a cabin find themselves in a slasher flick while Mering sways idly in the foreground and sings about the hang-ups of modern dating.

Similarly, she offsets cathartic moments like the harpsichord- and guitar-driven build on the song “Something to Believe” with self-effacing lines like “by some strange design, I got a case of the empties”, or an explanation that she has tried to cure her sadness by “staying away from the quicksand”, an obstacle famously only encountered in films. Mering’s conflicted relationship with cinema – as a teenager, deeply disappointed with the illusions she had grown up consuming, she abstained from watching films for three years – comes through most vividly on the sixth track on the album, unsurprisingly titled “Movies”. Monotonously, the first verse declares that “This is how it feels to be in love/This is life from above”. Over looping, space-age electronic beeps, the singer declares that she is “bound to that summer big box office hit, making love to a counterfeit”, yearning for nothing but to be the star of her own movie. In the music video for the song, a rapt audience watches a film in which Mering plays an ingénue with her blonde wig and white dress swirling underwater. When the song builds, and finally breaks, spiraling out into giddy string arpeggios, one by one, the audience members rise from their seats and run at the screen. They enter the world of the film, splashing around onscreen with Mering herself, swallowed up by the movie. Listening to that crescendo, you really can’t blame them.

The ominous, detached tone of “Movies”’ first verse, however, carries over into other tracks on the album, such as “Mirror Forever” or “Picture Me Better”. These songs outline the fact that moving pictures and projections might be enticing, but that they cannot substitute the reality of another person in a relationship. Both songs are full of misdirected or lost gazes – the speaker’s partner on “Mirror Forever” is “looking right through her”. “I see it so clearly/That we play a part”, she sings, while fingers snap out an almost resigned rhythm in the background. This sense of roles we must play continues in “Picture Me Better”, a ballad that blends acoustic guitar with swelling strings, written about a friend of Mering’s who died of suicide. The title is both an indictment of having to perform a better version of oneself at all times, and a plea for any reality in which her friend might still be alive – two impossible fantasies, played out against each other. The lines “And you’re making me act funny/Can’t help to smile with those eyes that shine/Only, if only you could see” turn the intimacy of friendship into a grand spectacle. The implication that a friend might be putting on a face even with those closest to them lends a sinister dimension to the “eyes that shine”, which serve as a reminder of the popular etymology that movie stars are so named because of the otherworldly glint in their eyes, reflections of the set lighting.

Finally, the nods to Titanic, the ultimate embodiment of cinematic bombast, thread themselves throughout the entire record. 1990s movie magic is superimposed over references to the very real disaster of 1912. “Andromeda”, an entire galaxy of a song about attempting to connect with someone while feeling adrift in an endless void, features the line “Lift the heart from the depths it’s fallen to”, a reference to the Heart of the Ocean diamond Kate Winslet’s character drops into the sea at the end of the film. At the same time, the final, instrumental track “Nearer to Thee” motions to the hymn reportedly played by the RMS Titanic’s string ensemble as the ship sank. The song’s string section reimagines the synths which open the album on “A Lot’s Gonna Change”, fitting the prosody of the line “you’re gonna be just fine”. If we’re going to be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, we might at least try to shift ours a bit nearer to Natalie Mering playing onstage. This constant awareness of doomed theatricality continues into Weyes Blood’s live performances. On her first show of the Titanic Rising tour, at the Haunt in Brighton, Mering wore an all-white suit under the wavering blue and yellow stage lights. She looked like an underwater cinema screen. A surface so overt about inviting projection that you’re almost embarrassed to try. 

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