Listening to Front Row Seat to Earth, the latest album from Californian Natalie Mering's Weyes Blood (pronounced "Wise Blood") project, feels almost like eavesdropping. Its update on the baroque pop sound of the late '60s made famous by bands like Love and The Zombies has a hermetic, observational quality that serves to highlight the veins of solitude and melancholy running through these nine remarkable songs.
Mering may not actually be as much of a recluse as Front Row Seat to Earth suggests - in fact she co-produced the melodically rich, ingeniously orchestrated record with Chris Cohen, who has also worked with the likes of Cass McCombs, Ariel Pink and Deerhoof - but by the time the miniature closing track "Front Row Seat" closes the record with orchestral reprises of some of the album's songs muddied and muffled as if heard from a great distance, the listener feels as if they have been drawn into a very personal hidden world.
The first offering from the record was the beautiful "Seven Words," which here creates an emotional peak near the record's conclusion with its pinpricks of quiet desperation, as when Mering sings "It's starting to hurt and I know you moved on." There is an elegant reserve to the way Mering performs, not unlike singers like Linda Ronstadt or Judy Collins, but nonetheless she invests every word with striking weight and clarity.
This too applies to the arrangements, which are fulsome, and sometimes busy, but never feel like they have been encumbered with meaningless adornments. Consistent throughout the record are gorgeously arranged harmonies, but also textural juxtapositions between the humble sound of acoustic guitars and pianos with delicately applied horns and strings. Mering and Cohen have created a sound world wreathed in fog, the subtlety of additions like the garlands of organ on the driving "Used to Be," the choral accompaniment at the climax of the autumnal, cinematic "Do You Need My Love," or the bright arpeggios of "Generation Why" not drawing focus from Mering's remarkable voice, but serving to buoy it.
Perhaps the most remarkable song on the record is "Can't Go Home," which consists of little more than layers upon layers of Mering's voice and a few stray drones that filter in and out like psychic transmissions. Though on the surface it's a candlelit evocation of contentment, at certain moments unexpected melodic shifts occur, like a dream suddenly turning dark. Mering sings with strength and confidence, but with an arrangement just as eloquent as her lyrics, evokes her own fragility and uncertainty.
Weyes Blood has long been a cult artist, but in its honesty and timeless sound, Front Row Seat to Earth feels like a major breakthrough. Despite modern touches of synthesisers and vocal effects, the album already feels like a decades old classic that has aged with grace and gravity. Add Natalie Mering to the long list of enigmatic musical auteurs - Arthur Lee, Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson - and she'll be in wonderful (and very fitting) company.
Front Row Seat to Earth is out on CD, vinyl and digital formats on Friday October 21st.