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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Beautiful Decline

The latest from Weyes Blood makes decadence, dysfunction, and despair sound good.

2019 Outside Lands Music And Arts Festival - Sutro Stage – Day 3
Weyes Blood performs onstage during the 2019 Outside Lands Music And Arts Festival at Golden Gate Park on August 11, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic)

Popular music resonates with listeners by speaking to the spirit of the time. It’s a vibe. Bubbly dance songs with synthetic accompaniment and nonsensical lyrics spoke to the optimism and energy of the mid ’80s. Gentle, naïve folk songs advocating social change and peace spoke to the hippies and free spirits of the late ’60s. The most successful bands have mastered the craft of songwriting and showed great sensitivity to a moment’s prevailing mood; David Bowie’s career spanned five decades because of these two qualities.

By this standard, what was the best album of 2022? It was a year particularly marked by resignation, conformity, boredom, and quiet desperation. Nevertheless, the newest albums from idols such as Beyonce and Taylor Swift failed to meet the mark. And Time Magazine’s “Entertainer of the Year,” Black Pink, a Korean hip-hop band, sounded indistinguishable from the dreck that was popular in the early aughts. Familiar faces or familiar sounds, but not quite 2022.

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I nominate And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow by Weyes Blood for last year’s best album. As the title suggests, the songs are dark and heavy. Yet they are not brooding or edgy. Rather, they convert the alienation, emptiness, and oppressive forces of today’s world into mesmerizing, epic ballads. This effect is completed by singer Nathalie Mering’s amazing vocals, which have the warmth and light of Karen Carpenter in her prime.

Unlike Weyes Blood’s previous two albums, Titanic Rising and Front Row Seat to Earth, which reflect more personal introspection in the lyrics and music, And In the Darkness addresses a universal experience of wary souls in the world that’s exhausted, unstable, and sad.

This feeling arises immediately in the opening track, “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody” as Mering wistfully sings, “Living in the wake of overwhelming changes, we’ve all become strangers even to ourselves.” Coupled with the chorus, which is the title of the song, the listener can’t help but think of Covid lockdowns that transformed a free people into a confused herd of sheep masking their faces. Now when so many of these measures have proven false or ineffective, people point to one another as some kind of defense.

Not content to keep their discontent to themselves, Americans have exported their hysteria to the rest of the world, which becomes the focus of the following track and perhaps the best song of the album, “Children of Empire.” Although it is one of the more jaunty tracks, its lyrics are the most bitter: “Cause we’re long gone in that eternal flame trying to break away from the mess we made.” So much of what is done in the name of justice and liberation, and always with a smile, results in chaos and failure, be it Covid lockdowns, the war in Afghanistan, mass addiction to pharmaceuticals and vacuous media, or rampant corruption and incompetence in government.

The meditation on the reality of decay and dysfunction continues in the following three love songs, “Grapevine,” “Heart Aglow,” and “Twin Flame.” The first song might have come out of a Steinbeck novel, recounting an abusive affair in the grapevines of California. The woman (Mering) sings of her lover’s arrogance and irrational endeavors, but still looks fondly at what she had with him. “Hearts Aglow” carries a similar theme of desperation, the singer clinging to the feeling of love in a world that offers nothing to her: “‘Cause it’s been a death march, the whole world is crumbling … I’ve been waiting for my life to begin for someone to light my heart again.” Once more, “Twin Flame” describes a bored woman in an unhappy relationship, but who still clings to it.

The tone of the album picks up with the upbeat “The Worst Is Done,” though the lyrics still betray chronic regret and disenchantment. Expressing the experience of an aging millennial who sought love and adventure but ended up sad and hopeless, in the chorus Mering sings, “They say the worst is done, and it’s time to go out, grab on to someone … But I think the worst has yet to come.” Why hope in a brighter tomorrow, when the only thing to look forward to is getting older and lonelier? Such baseless optimism is nothing more than a “toxic positivity” that deprives people even of their sadness.

It is perhaps not a mystery why Weyes Blood has never really become really mainstream with themes like these. Usually set to a slow beat, with lush production and often running longer than six minutes, the general mood of a Weyes Blood song is always doleful and heavy, even when about love or moving on from grief. Their albums may be better suited for adult listeners who have lived a little than for younger ones still struggling to understand themselves and the times they live in. But what makes Weyes Blood so great is that they do all this with such graceful subtlety. And in Darkness, Hearts Aglow is accessible and satisfying, just not that happy or hopeful. And in 2022, that was precisely how so much of the world felt.