Natalie Mering, who records as Weyes Blood, belongs to a lineage of dramatic female folk singers that stretches from contemporaries Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen all the way back to art-rock figurehead Nico. Mering, who cut her teeth playing with experimental outfits like Jackie-O Motherfucker and Axolotl, distinguishes herself through a severe, often morbid aesthetic (she mentions death and tombs on at least five songs) and songwriting that owes as much to contemporary indie as the modal eeriness of Medieval music.
The Innocents (a title that, like her stage name, nods to an imposing literary idol) steps firmly beyond the free-floating gloominess of Mering’s 2011 LP The Outside Room, sharpening her baroque phrasing into a chilly but theatrical formality. Her best songs achieve a sense of alienation, the Ren Faire-staginess enhanced by anachronistic effects. Wobbly tape distortion muddles the otherwise straightforward piano ballad “Some Winters,” and sudden, fuzzy thwacks close out the remarkable “Land of Broken Dreams,” which finds Mering lamenting, “My family, my country and my school have all left me dry.”
Other standout entries strike a similar balance of gloom and gilded artifice, particularly “Hang On,” with its heavily punctuated, Grizzly Bear-like cadences, and “Ashes,” which effectively conveys the torture of obsessive thoughts through cycling, near-strophic verses. But the album as a whole feels inconsistent, mostly because Mering’s lyrical vagaries can’t match the precision of her vocals. When it comes to subtler effects, she’s hit or miss — the delicate “Summer” has the melancholy shimmer of an Elliott Smith song, while the barebones arrangement of “Bad Magic” soaks the album’s final third in inertia from which it never quite recovers. As with Mering’s weighty influences, there’s a lot to admire here, some to love and some to forget.