There exists a terrifying film called The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr, released in 1961. It’s based on a play of the same name, which in turn was an adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn Of The Screw. All versions involve a governess hired to care for two young children, who may or may not be possessed by the ghosts of the couple who looked after them in the past, a couple whose deviant nature destroyed the lives around them (including their own).
Those who’ve had occasion to watch the film version haven’t easily forgotten the opening credits: as you sit in complete darkness (or some reasonable facsimile thereof … c’mon, work with us), and well before the studio logo is displayed, you hear a little girl’s voice, unaccompanied, singing these words:
We lay, my love and I, beneath the weeping willow.
But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree.
Singing “O Willow Waly” by the tree that weeps with me.
Singing “O Willow Waly” till my lover return to me.
We lay, my love and I, beneath the weeping willow.
A broken heart have I.
O willow, I die…
O willow, I die.
The film’s credits roll on, screen right, as the image of Ms. Kerr, praying and sobbing, is superimposed on the left. That sequence puts you on the back foot and keeps you there, even as you begin to doubt the events of the story that follows, lingering on like mist, heavy and earthbound.
Henry James would’ve wanted it that way. Tired of the ways in which authors had depicted the supernatural, the author extrapolated their evil nature out of elements you’d never expect, or in his own words, “the strange and sinister embroidered on … the normal and easy.” And his notions of how to represent these tropes have since fed into our familiar understanding of how suspense works as a narrative device in the centuries that followed. James made us all more suspicious; where we find beauty and sadness, we often assume that it has been influenced by some spectre whose bent will keeps its presence lingering from beyond the grave, whose sorrows have curdled into vengeance. We walk alone in wintery woods, past the frozen lake, wind whipping through the bare branches, and we cannot help but wonder if we are truly alone, if there is any creature that could take us down with it every time we hear the dead leaves rustle or the snapping of a dried branch, or if it’s all in our minds.
The Innocents is the name of the second album by Natalie Mering, who performs as Weyes Blood. Its ten songs confront us with their truths. There is the beauty of Ms. Mering’s voice, whose strength across two vocal registers reveals a vulnerability belied by some of her lyrics. On all but one of the songs on The Innocents, her voice is the dominant quality, tracked in multi-part harmonies with herself. There is the semblance of training in her voice to get her to where she can sing today, or any number of devices we as listeners impose upon her, because most of us are not privy to a vocalist of such rare choral purity.
Then there is the truth of the words she sings on The Innocents, words so clear that they cannot be misinterpreted. It’s not unintentional that Weyes Blood is a colloquialism referring to Flannery O’Connor, though Mering doesn’t mince for words. Forget similes and metaphors: when you are confronted with lyrics like those found on “Some Winters” (“I’m as broken/as a woman can be” … “Go on, leave me for the last time”), lyrics that are so emotionally unflinching that they could pierce stone, the notion of any other interpretations seem trivial. And yet, you will try. As you sift through her words, you’ll feel something, and you’ll associate those feeling with past experiences that may cause you to associate them with something more, something that affects your own emotional state.
Finally, there is the truth of the music. Rooted in American and British folk, Weyes Blood pulls and stretches the style at its fringes, like a sweater that’s just begun to unravel. Traditional instruments (guitar, piano, drums) are set against electronics and tape effects, collages and the melodic qualities of delay, that bridge an older world of songcraft into the future, creating a synthesis between all the best of the 20th century and those that came before. A song like the melancholy ballad “Bad Magic” possesses infinite beauty in its sadness and how it releases those sentiments, but it’s even more beautiful in relief to all the other material on The Innocents. Never once does she repeat herself. Each song is a variant on the styles present in the record, and each is unmistakably her own.
Not dissimilar to the work of Henry James, Weyes Blood presents a series of musical interludes, free for you to interpret but poised to elicit a raw emotional response. Does her music sound haunted to you, then, because it evokes memories that trigger our own fears, or do you honestly believe that there is a ghost dictating her every turn? As Mering stated in a recent interview, her work’s “creepiness … is only as intentional as you think it is.” To her, this is the only form of expression: laid bare, deeply connected to the past, and miles away from anything else you’re likely to hear in music today.
6-11 Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg (Psychic Ills)