By Maddie Farr ’18
It’s basically impossible at this point to not be aware of our incoming environmental catastrophe. What were once theoretical statistics are now tangible realities, as temperatures rise globally, natural disasters intensify, and our coastal cities are threatened by the expanding ocean. This is our world, and the bite of it sometimes keeps me up at night. Which is why I fell so hard for Front Row Seat To Earth, the new album by Natalie Mering’s project Weyes Blood. The reality of climate change never leaves Mering’s line of sight as she sings of feelings as seemingly disparate from environmental destruction as love, longing, and iPhones. This is not a social justice album. Mering is not asking you to recycle more, although I’m sure she would appreciate it if you did. This is an album about how to get up every morning and keep living and loving, even when you are aware that within your lifetime you will experience environmental changes that no humans have experienced before. This is an album about the primacy of truth and love, and the ability of humans to survive change.
Natalie Mering’s voice is classically beautiful, and provokes comparisons with older folk singers like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell. But Front Row Seat To Earth is the love-and-heartbreak-filled folk album with a twist: the world is ending! This context darkens and deepens Mering’s songs, making immediate their longings and intimacies. On the nearly 7-minute “Do You Need My Love,” Mering croons the chorus with rising passion: “Do you need me the way I need you? / Let’s be true for a change / Do you need someone? / Do you need my love?” The incoming apocalypse doesn’t make human desires and tragedies less significant – it only makes them more so.
While the apocalypse is only a haunting presence in the background of most of the songs (and literally on the background of the album cover, which suggests rising ocean levels), it is directly mentioned on the album’s centerpiece, “Generation Why.” On this song, Mering sings, “Going to see end of days / I’ve been hanging on my phone all day / And the fear goes away / I might not need to stay on this sinking ship for long.” Then she taps even further into our generation’s lexicon with a drawn-out, soulful repetition of Drake’s famous call to action and the millennial motto: YOLO. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Mering said, “The reason the ‘you only live once’ philosophy exists is because our situation is pretty desperate. The cataclysm of climate change and all that is very physical and it affects our ability to survive on the planet. It’s like learning how to accept the apocalypse without fear.” In her hands, YOLO takes on a new depth that even Drake could not have predicted.
So, if you only live once, how do you live? To me this question is most profoundly answered by the song “Away Above,” which stands out on the album for its acapella opening and percussive sound. This song is sonically layered – Mering harmonizes with herself throughout the track, eventually reaching a climax of vocal beauty as the chorus gains immediacy and meaning. As she sings, “Away above, find a perfect love,” it is clear that the love she is referring to is both the very real love had by “You and me,” and also a greater love, the love with the whole world that one participates in by being in love. This song is about more than just the relationship between two bodies, it is about soul-connection, it is about transcending the corporeal, transcending this sinking ship called Earth. It is about what humans can give to each other, the ways that love is like a form of ascension.
Mering repeats the last line of “Away Above” twice: “I won’t hold back from you.” It’s a promise, and it’s the last promise of the album – these are the last words Mering herself sings. And in this promise is the answer to the question YOLO poses: in a world composed of nothing but uncertainties, the greatest gift you can give is the all of yourself. It is an ode to generous love and to the certainty true connection can bring in an unstable world. Natalie Mering has a front row seat to Earth, and from there she witnesses it all – the destruction, the sadness, the desire, and the love. I’m joining her there.