The Weepies’ fifth album, Sirens, feels familiar on just a second listen. But that’s a staple of Deb Talan and Steve Tannen’s intimate personal and musical connection. Since they released their debut, Happiness, in 2003 and married in 2007, Talan and Tannen have always been able to elicit that homey sonic embrace through their warm harmonies and soft folk-pop.
And indeed, Sirens was made in their Iowa home. But Sirens also came forth in the throes of Talan’s third pregnancy and then cancer. Talan was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer before Christmas in 2013, around three years after The Weepies’ last record Be My Thrill, and declared cancer-free in summer 2014. Referencing both the doppler ambulance wails and the mermaid-like mythical creatures that lead sailors to shipwreck with its title, Sirens is not thematically a “cancer album.” Rather, it’s an album that happened to be made while battling and recovering from the disease.
With their futures unknown, Talan and Tannen wrote as prolifically and recorded as frequently as possible during the past two turbulent years. As such, The Weepies whittled down their lot of music to 16 tracks, including a cover of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” and an album-closing version of Irish folk singer Mark Geary’s “Volunteer.” With an extensive list of collaborators including Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve (Elvis Costello), Gerry Leonard (David Bowie), Rami Jaffee (Foo Fighters), Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel), Oliver Kraus (Sia) and Matt Chamberlain (Pearl Jam), these musicians would get to a studio or online at all hours of the day and night to track parts. Their voices contribute important textures to the overall sound of the record.
The 14 original tunes on Sirens range in genre from folk-ska (“Early Morning Riser”) to lullaby-like (“Our Little Love,” in which you can distantly hear their kids playing in the backyard). But symbolism and literary license also yield narratively intriguing songs like “Boys Who Want To Be Girls” and the metaphorical “River From The Sky.” However, it’s early single “No Trouble” that strikes the perfect balance of implication and actuality. While the piano-plinking song could be understood in terms of Talan’s illness, it was actually penned before her diagnosis and includes lyrics about their friends divorcing, as the pair harmonize the highly interpretable chorus of “I don’t need no trouble / Sometimes trouble needs me / Don’t need no trouble / But it’s plain to see sometimes trouble needs me.” And so Sirens ultimately represents a definitive record in The Weepies’ catalog, not just for the backstory of its creation, but for its broad scope of musical layers and untiring search for emotional truths.