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Good Letters

In Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 debut novel Wise Blood, an itinerant World War II veteran named Hazel Motes is determined to live a life without belief. He’s a preacher, but he preaches the “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” 

Yet, for all Motes’s renouncing, Christ remains. He “moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

Motes is, in other words, haunted by Christ, a state of being that O’Connor ascribes to the entire southern United States. “The Southerner,” she writes, “who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”

Natalie Mering, the singer-songwriter who performs as Weyes Blood, took her stage name from O’Connor’s novel. It was a cursory decision, initially, by her own account. The name sparked inspiration, and not much more. Raised a Christian, she has since traded the Pentecostal fervor of her youth for more disparate forms of spirituality, from astrology to Eastern esoterica.

Still, her music remains concerned with what, if anything, she believes now, in a time of inequality, communication breakdown, and climate disaster.

Mering’s voice possesses something of the same yearning and uncertainty as Hazel Motes walking atop dark water in the wooded contours of his mind.

One is not always sure where it will lead—whether she’s whispering over the ambient, freak-folk of her 2011 debut The Outside Room, reeling in a Celtic mode on The Innocents (2014), or hovering Carole King-like on her two most recent records, Front Row Seat to Earth (2015) and Titanic Rising (2018). On these last two records, her lush vocals and arrangements, pastoral and poignant, are often familiar. They evoke the heady days of California folk and the smooth phrasing and vocal control of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Judy Garland. Yet, for all the lavish production, a sense of the uncanny is never far from the surface.

For O’Connor the uncanny is that which shocks her characters out of complacency, forces them to confront both the hard truths of Christian belief and their own shortcomings. It does so precisely because it connects them to that which is the most real–for O’Connor, that’s God incarnate, Christ. Like Sigmund Freud, who calls the uncanny “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar,” O’Connor sees the uncanny as something bound up in feelings long felt but never recognized. But unlike Freud, O’Connor always locates the uncanny in Christ. The uncanny is what shocks the unbeliever into something like belief, even if it looks different than what we understand belief to be. The experience of the uncanny alarms, even sparks dread, but it draws her characters into truer, sharper life.

Apocalypse as Invitation: Titanic Rising

Titanic Rising, released in April 2019, begins with a warning: “A lot’s gonna change / In your lifetime / Try to leave it all behind.” That first chorus orients us for the rest of the record.

In “Andromeda,” Mering is floating, along with warbling synths, through a “big wide open galaxy” looking “for something” she “may never find.” The song is a realization, as she soars through the heavens, that the definitive human dream, the one that can capstone a life, is finding “a love that will make you.” At the song’s end, as Mering swings her gaze from the endless mystery of the universe to a romantic entanglement on earth, she is ready to offer and receive love. She never backs down from love as a daring act, a leap, and as the guitar curls up in a concluding question mark, the listener is reminded that all this realizing is still happening while we are floating in space, untethered, quite possibly alone.

In “Something to Believe,” Mering is alone. Over-caffeinated, struck with a “case of the empties,” Mering sings about how “the waters don’t really go by me.” Whether these are the “rivers of living water” from the Gospel of John or simply a font of inspiration, Mering wants some answer to the malaise. “Give me something I can see,” she asks. “Something bigger and louder than the voices in me / Something to believe.” She repeats this line through the song’s conclusion. Except for the final seconds, the song ends triumphantly, in a Brian Wilson-esque swell: buffeting drums, a distant hum of what could be organ. Ultimately the plaintive, nasal synths are all that remain, Mering’s final request buzzing around our heads.

The instrumental “Titanic Rising” shimmers like the formerly sunken vessel rising to the surface, and the rest of the record feels like a ghost ship. “Nearer to Thee,” taken from the title of the hymn which supposedly played as the Titanic sunk, sends the ship back below the waves, tender pomp and circumstance quickly dwindling to nothing.

Between those two instrumentals, Mering confronts inauthenticity and the crumbling world. In “Movies,” she admits, “the meaning of life doesn’t seem to shine like that screen.” Mering admits. In “Mirror Fever,” she is weightless amid trembling strings, underwater perhaps, like the album cover. Drums part the track like a breaststroke through deep water. “We love our love most of all” she sings, the thrill of feeling a stronger pull than the reality of the other person in the relationship. “Baby take a look in the mirror,” she advises. Their love takes the shape of their own reflections, their own movies after all.

In “Wild Time,” her vision turns apocalyptic: “It’s a wild time to be alive” she marvels. Hubris has us teetering at a dangerous height, and the results are already tragic: a “million people are burning.” But even the promise of vanishing coastlines and rising temperatures does not preclude enlightenment. In O’Connor fashion, it just might spark it.

“Turn around” Mering murmurs, “slowly let these changes make you / more holy and true.” Impending disaster casts everything in a new, though familiar, light. Our surroundings are wild, sure. But the only way an object of belief can be approached in our volatile present is to walk into the strangeness. We’re “burning down the door” into something unforeseen. The uncanny beckons us toward the hoped for something, out there, that will change everything.

For O’Connor, that something was clearly defined; it has already changed everything. Toward the end of Wise Blood, Hazel Motes dies in a police car. Wrapped around his chest is barbed wire. There are rocks in his shoes. His eyes have been scoured by quicklime. He is the very picture of a pious mendicant, mortifying his own flesh in atonement for his sins. He attempted atonement without Christ, but O’Connor suggests his redemption happens anyway.

Mering may not be interested in the figure of Christ, but she’s making a trail to follow toward something. That uncanny beckoning? Maybe it’s just estrangement from one another, our dying planet, our problems, like a great ship, rising and sinking and rising again, pointing us toward something truer.

Maybe however, the beckoning is a loving whisper over dark water: “Come and follow me.”

Read Jack Nuelle’s last essay for Good Letters, “The National’s Secular Heaven.” 

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jack Nuelle

Jack Nuelle is a writer currently based in Boston. He received his BA from the University of Chicago and MTS from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Follow him on twitter @j_c_nuelle.

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