I still learn things.
mewithoutYou’s past four albums are vast, full of content to be discovered in multiple hearings. The band’s initial outing, [A–>B] Life, all the way back in 2002, can be seen as the basic musings of a heartbroken young man with a knack for songwriting, but it still rises above its peers for its attention to detail. Aside from the witty little catchphrases often equated with music of youth, it is jammed full of references, allegories, and questions. The ability to hear a song years later and encounter a fresh perspective is uncommon and wonderfully special.
Ten Stories intimidates me, because I can already tell this is the most packed album yet. My relation to the band is a personal one, as I spend little time comparing and contrasting the specifics of each tune (to whatever Pitchfork says is best right now), but examine their progression as both musicians and human beings. What I can immediately say is that the melodies are closer to 2004’s Catch For Us the Foxes and 2006’s Brother, Sister, rather than 2009’s It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright. But without devolving his style back in years, Aaron Weiss (songwriter, vocals, accordion, acoustic guitar, sombreros, I guess) keeps pushing forward.
While It’s All Crazy!‘s instruments evoked a more folk-like sound, Weiss began to write his songs as tales rather than profundities. “The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie” and “The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate” (a favorite) were honest attempts at intelligent gospel. Albums past had Weiss screaming into the microphone, either pining for an old girl, excitedly yelling about his newfound revelations, or managing his newfound revelations with his old pinings. The spiritual epiphanies came from him, speaking of himself. “As who’s ever heard of a singer criticized by his song?” I don’t consider that a bad thing, necessarily, as it’s, basically, the history of all music. Of all bands. Of all dudes with a thirst for knowledge.
Weiss’ attitudes have grown increasingly self-aware, and the man who speaks on YouTube videos priding himself on memorizing important Bible verses or advocating vegetable-oil fuel or questioning the morality of marriage are questioned, themselves. The epiphanies keep revealing themselves in different ways, and the self-consciousness has him writing lines like “So by now I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s no God and there’s definitely a God!” This guy sat with me after a show and spoke of my issues with a personal reverence. I watched him be among the most selfless human beings I’d ever encountered, so when he looks back on and shrugs off the idea of self-righteousness, all I see is humility, only increasing the “problem”. It’s Socrates refusing to believe he could really be the smartest man on Earth, I guess. (Current schooling, what’s up?) Letting go of personal semantics and letting the music of the guitars be matched up against, I don’t know, Animal Collective or whomever is popular these days, is nigh impossible.
Ten Stories‘ greatest strength is, again, the songwriting, and for the first time the entire album is a modern fable. Taking genuine beliefs, feelings, and experiences and crafting them in a fictional state, rather than constantly blurting out “I think this” or “I think that”, is a craft that pushes Ten Stories to the top of the heap. Rather than attempting to encapsulate his entire range of thought in one song at a time, Weiss breaks off and disperses his qualities in anthropomorphic animals. Working with characters rather than a complete expulsion of self lets him play with storytelling and contribute positions even he, as a person, wouldn’t subscribe to. Still, the very intimate and historically-accurate poetry flows out, from one character or another. “In the blistering heat of the Asbury pier we sat quiet as monks on the Ferris wheel, until looking down at the waltzer and out at the sea I asked her ‘Do you ever have that recurring fantasy where you push little kids from the tops of the rides?’ She shook her head no, I said ‘Oh, neither do I’ and with my grandmother’s ring I went down on one knee and the subsequent catastrophe has since haunted me (like a fiberglass ghost) in the attic of my inconveniently selective memory.” I have no reason to believe this isn’t the same truthful earnestness that has played out in the band’s past decade, but this time “Bear” says it, and “Bear” saying it, instead of Aaron, means greater creative freedom. They’re on the path of being storytellers. They’re not singing about religion, by now, as much as they are showing it.
This album is the perfect, logical continuation of the meta-story mewithoutYou has built since 2002. While individual songs can be found on radio playlists and enjoyed, the greater tale is one of the band as a whole. The instrumentals are far from where they started, as are the lyrics. It’s a beautiful record, and, most importantly, it’s made by people with stories to tell. I think that’s what the music industry, perhaps the entirety of art, needs. It needs people, fully-rounded and with stories to share, rather than machines on a race to disposability. I can’t wait to see what they do next, because whatever they do next (another album, splitting off into single acts, shying away from the world to be professors in some tiny college) will inevitably continue the narrative they constructed long ago.