mewithoutYou, Ten Stories
By luke larsen
May 18, 2012
MewithoutYou is a very special band. It is one of the few that managed to survive the sharp decline in popularity of both post-hardcore and Christian rock—two genres the band once lived quite comfortably in. Needless to say, mewithoutYou's ever-growing following is proof that what they have become today is something that transcends a lot of the boxes they've been pegged in. Calling their fans a bizarre niche is no longer applicable.
That was never more clear than when they released their 2010 album It's All Crazy, which substituted a lot of the band's trademark stylings for a folky, singalong indie rock album. The album found frontman Aaron Weiss leaving behind his passionate spoken word/scream for sweeter melodies and simpler songs. Splitting fans and critics across the board, It's All Crazy was a turning point in mewithoutYou's career; there was simply no going back. They had new fans, new recognition from the press and new ambitions for where they could take their music.
After enduring a long, drawn-out hiatus in which the fate of the band was up in the air, mewithoutYou has returned on Ten Stories with a strong sound that feels more like a natural evolution and less like an identity crisis. Hardcore fans will, without a doubt, still yearn for more songs that showcase the band's wilder side. However, what the album does is fully integrate the two styles into something that feel both cohesive and true to the roots of the band.
Speaking of the roots of the band, Ten Stories starts out with the song "February 1878," which is a direct nod to fans and the band's earlier catalogue (see "January 1979" from the their breakout 2004 record, which is also about a crash). More than that, the first half of the song revisits the thrashy guitars, energetic drumming and spoken-word monologues. It's a song for the fans if there has ever been one. Fortunately, Aaron's aggressive vocals are spot on, bringing back all of that fiery passion that was mostly absent on It's All Crazy. Songs like this one and the heavy-hitting rocker "Fox's Dream of the Log Flume" have enough character to convert even the most avid anti-screaming naysayers.
The opening track also demonstrates the most central attribute of the band at its very best: Aaron Weiss’ poetic lyrics. Past albums’ themes can primarily be summed up as being about the trials of animals and Bible characters. But here, Weiss brings it all together to tell a story—you might even call it a concept album. For casual fans of the band, mewithoutYou's lyrics can be as something of a stumbling block—wordy, contrived and full of philosophizing woodland creatures. My guess is that Weiss couldn't write a radio-friendly love song to save his life. But if you're willing to dig into the story that Aaron so eloquently tells, you'll find that it's full of interesting characters, plot twists and deep, contemplative thoughts.
The album tells the story of a circus train full of animals traveling through a snowy mountain pass of nineteenth-century Montana. After taking a sharp turn, the animals seize the moment and flip the train to escape their lives of destitution, led by their fearless leader, Elephant. As the story unfolds, its tone ends up landing somewhere in the compelling range between Animal Farm and a European folk tale. It feels like the perfect place to be for mewithoutYou, and the material couldn't be more relevant today; sentiments of revolution and rising up against oppressors feel like particularly ripened topics to explore.
One of the most memorable moments is on the track "Elephant in the Dock," where Weiss paints a court scene with lines like Elephant refused to swear the oath / Said I don't know anything about truth / But I know falsehood when I see it / And it looks like this whole world you made. There’s no sense hiding the fact that this is dense and overwrought stuff. Even when comparing Ten Stories to an earlier album like Catch Us All the Foxes, it's clear Weiss' subject matter has gotten less and less personal on the surface. We even get less of Weiss’ fascinating brand of mystic Christianity this time around. Even still, you can't help but assume that he is also writing more and more of himself into the stories of these talking animals.
Who do all the circus animals represent anyway? America? The Occupy movement? The guys in the band? Who does Elephant represent? Jesus? It’s safe to say that hardcore fans will be debating each other years down the road about this one —and I mean that in a very good way.
I got to speak with the band earlier this year about the album and how it felt to get the guys back on solid ground again as friends and bandmates. Drummer Rickie Mazzotta spoke of what a difficult time of tragedy and despair their previous record was birthed out of, while Ten Stories saw the band coming back together again in a fresh and confident way. In that way, Ten Stories feels like a celebration of all that mewithoutYou has been and all it has in store down the road. Even if Ten Stories isn’t a tried-and-true return to form, it's consistently funny, sweet, aggressive, violent, honest, strange and imaginative—all the things we've come to expect from another fantastic mewithoutYou album.
Luke Larsen is a freelance writer, music connoisseur and iOS game enthusiast hailing from Portland, Ore. His writing has been featured in publications such as Paste Magazine, Prefix, GameChurch and Christ and Pop Culture. Follow him on Twitter.