"It’s been a long strange year, everyone’s sad." That sums up pretty much any point in the three-plus years since Weyes Blood released her 2019 breakthrough (and BrooklynVegan's #1 Album of 2019), Titanic Rising. We've seen fire and we've seen rain, a worldwide pandemic, riots, protests, and all manor of other social upheaval, craziness we never thought we'd experience, just about everything short of a plague of frogs. Titanic Rising was a gorgeous harbinger of doom, a sense of dread you just can't shake, a vision of the iceberg in our path that it was too late to steer away from. Her new album, And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, drops us in the middle of all this tumult as we try and figure out how to also get by day-to-day.

That line about the long strange year, it opens the album's penultimate track, "The Worst is Done," a strummy number about trying to get back to normal even if it's pretty clear that the worst is far from done. Bells chime and synthesizers swirl, the kind that sound like magic -- be it the fantastical kind or the Olivia Newton John kind -- with "bah bah bah" backing vocals that try to put a happy face on things, but Natalie Mering sings otherwise, wondering if we can ever go back to normal. "We're all so cracked after that."

Mering continues to explore themes like how technology is isolating us as it makes our planet smaller, how things are changing so fast, so often that none of us have a chance to catch our breath, what we're doing to the earth, and how we don't take responsibility for our actions. This time, though, it's all shot through a new lens -- the breakup album. While the world is burning down, so is a relationship and how does anyone have the bandwidth to deal with it all?

An especially empathetic songwriter, Mering is in sublime form this time, weaving the intensely personal with the universal, the macro and micro, and wrapping it in melodies, harmonies and arrangements that make it cosmic. Nowhere is this more evident, right in the title, than on opening track "It's Not Just Me, It's Everybody," where Mering sings about our loss of real connection while we seemingly have everything at our fingertips: " Fragile in the morning / Can’t hold on to much of anything with this hole in my hand / I can’t pretend that we always keep what we find / Yes everybody splits apart sometimes."

On "Grapevine," she mixes climate crisis concerns and smoldering passions into a very West Coast road movie of doomed romance:

California’s my body
And your fire runs over me
My car broke down
In an old ghost town right around
Where they got James Dean
Emotional Cowboy
With no hat and no boots
He stayed up all night
Trying to beat up the moon

All of this is set against sublime, sophisticated, and very cinematic music. Titanic Rising was an indie IMAX blockbuster, sonically, but the production on Hearts Aglow has been dialed back just a little. She reteams with co-producer Jonathan Rado and many of the crack musicians who worked on Titanic -- The Lemon Twigs' Brian and Michael D'Addario, Mary Lattimore, drummer Joey Waronker, Hand Habits' Meg Duffy -- and she's orchestrating her songs with string sections, horns and harps, tubular bells and synthesizers, and choirs of "ahhhhs," but there's a little more air in the room this time, and not everything goes for big.

Most of the album was recorded at Studio Three at EastWest Studios in Los Angeles where Brian Wilson also worked on The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, with the band playing together live as much as possible. At first glance, the differences might seem imperceptible, but these arrangements add to the more personal nature of the songs. Take "Twin Flame," which uses more fire allusions to describe the last embers of a relationship, and sets them to gently ticking drum machines and a light watercolor palette of synths that turn dark as Mering sings, "You’re my twin flame, and you got me so cold when you pull away."

No matter the scale, be it widescreen ("It's Not Just Me, It's Everybody") or intimate ("A Given Thing"), Mering's gossamer voice is at the center, doing much of the heavy emotional lifting. On "Children of the Empire" she sings "trying to break away from the mess we made" and turns the word "mess" into a whole stanza -- a movement packed with so much feeling, it's a thing to behold. She also uses her arrangements -- still sentimental but less overtly '70s -- like a master filmmaker to underscore the emotions, lifting her voice to the heaven or placing it right by your ear. On her riff on the tale of Narcissus, "God Turn Me Into a Flower," the orchestral synths (courtesy Oneohtrix Point Never's Daniel Lopatin) transform into chirping birds and crickets as they fade into the ether. A nice touch.

Mering says this album is the second part of a trilogy: Titanic Rising dealt existential dread, while Hearts Aglow is set in the center of the chaos. The next will be about hope, she says, which she hints at on Hearts Aglow's title track and album artwork, where she compares a heart to a glow-stick that needs to be cracked before it shines. "I would love to be able to write a song to save the world, but I’m not converting anybody: it’s preaching to the choir," Mering told The Guardian. "But the choir needs preaching to." Bright positivity, in even the best of times is a hard emotion to pull off, dramatically, but if anyone seems equipped to stick the landing, it's Weyes Blood.

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