There is a scene in the last season of Lena Dunham's now-underrated Girls where Jessa (Jemima Kirke) tells Dunham's character that "You used to have interesting ideas, and now all you do is browse the Internet." It's not hard to imagine Natalie Mering inhabiting that same space when she accuses her own room-filling voice of having "squandered my time, got rid of that dream of mine" on the fourth track of her latest album as Weyes Blood, Front Row Seat to Earth. Both have reservations about inhabiting similar worlds: generation tumblr, generation meme, hours consumed by a gaping void. Like Dunham at her best, Mering sets the stakes of this confrontation with perfect slacker disaffection: "Going to see end of days, I've been hanging on my phone all day," she sings on "Generation Why."
Front Row is Mering's second full length on Mexican Summer as Weyes Blood, a moniker she fashioned after the Flannery O'Conner novel that it mnemonically mimics. Her first, 2014's The Innocents, was a scorched earth assault on the barren plains, a heady and blistering jangle of guitars contained only by the reach of her effortlessly ethereal voice. One reviewer compared her to "a Steinbeck character." It was the fire-burning of Angel Olson's Burn Your Fire for No Witness without the ample press support. But unlike Olson, Mitski, or any of Mering's demographic company, Weyes Blood emerges from the gutters of long-occupied spaces: a few noise rock bands and a brief stint in Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti highlight her oeuvre. Front Row is her self-conscious move into their bigger league game and she takes it as a vehicle to investigate the condition that condition is in.
O'Conner would sometimes refer to Wise Blood as her "opus nauseous," something carefully worked over with precision of allegorizers of the Middle Age studying bible passages. Mering's tool of choice, on the other hand, is the scalpel: each song feels carved from the fizz and drone of her debut into something warm, tempered, and, ultimately, maximal. Take "Do You Need My Love": it's an Elton-esque ballad made of blasted concrete, her androgynously forlorn voice racing circles around a deliberately droll piano. Guitars don't appear at all and in its place are slices of psychedelic wonk such as a moog-like synth breakdown pleasantly reminiscent of early prog. This grab-bag of instruments that Mering pulls from throughout the record, some ballpark organ on "Seven Words," a coda of horns on "Be Free," give Front Row the feeling of a footnoted thousand-page novel, conveniently wrapped up in forty minutes.
The central question that Mering concerns her project with is this: what is intimacy in post-overshare culture? Memes and viral hits have slowly veered into becoming less mass-produced pop cultural moments and more expressions of intimacy snagged by social media nets—Crying Jordan perhaps epitomizes this but some of the lesser hits of the past year, particularly Damn Daniel and Benjamin Bennett's "Sitting and Smiling" project, feel equally apt for their massively popular celebration of the banal and everyday. Mering's answer, throughout Front Row, is departure: the record is a triumph of clipped breakup anthems that double as masterpieces of deadpan resignation. "Generation Why" is the single that's fussiest about this, featuring Mering chanting Y-O-L-O amidst gospel humming curiously in sync with this year's Big Culture releases by Kanye, Chance and Bey. But it's songs like "Diary" that really anchor the record, where a line like "where does my life go, those close to me may know" hits perfectly.
Who knows? Your IG followers?
Front Row Seat to Earth is out now on Mexican Summer and can be found on iTunes and probably Spotify.
The music video for "Do You Need My Love," however, features a bear.