Only In Their Leaving Can They Ever Come Back Round: mewithoutYou’s Ten Stories

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.


A Plague of Kindness

“Remember, you can stay at lady from our old church’s house,” my mom reminds me when I tell her about my upcoming trip to Fort Wayne.  “If you’re having so much fun you’d like to stay for longer, friend from middle school’s parents would be happy to have you.”

I have lived in a world of comfort.  I was going to write “relative comfort”, but I don’t know what more comfort there could really be.  At some point in Winthrop’s HMXP program we’re going to talk about “privilege” and I’m going to blush.  I have enough to get by.  I have enough to get by and then some.  Always have.  Don’t know how or why.  The insurance business.  The insurance claims business.  Libraries.  Stay-at-home moms.  There’s money in my bank account, and you can buy a lot of Steam games with it.

My mom reminds me that my Uncle Max (her side) or my Uncle Joe (his side) are great, caring guys who would always have a couch available.  I rarely take them up on it.  I feel slightly uncomfortable asking for it when there’s a car to sleep in.  I’ve slept in my car.  It’s no big deal.

There’s this family I met at a religious service, that one I met in band.  My friends’ parents’ houses, the floor of my friends’ apartments.  There are options to where I sleep.  Some ex-crush if I talk sweetly enough.  The bench in the park.

When I was running a knife down my forearm or throwing pain relievers in my mouth, I recall a lack of perception regarding my options.  It was either suffer or die.  Now I retroactively look back and see that I didn’t have to drive away, that I didn’t have to wander at night, that I didn’t have to scream.  They’re all there.  Those options, those choices, are present to me.  My mom keeps pressing them.  Kershaw and Hickory are sixty minutes away.  There are people there.  Ones I know.  Ones who proved their care long ago.

I suppose what I’m attempting to express is that not all people are vile.  At least a few of them aren’t sociopaths ready to kill you in the night.  Room and board exists, with friends, with family, with a love, with a person you find on Craigslist (be more careful with that one).  Suddenly, I’m sitting in the offices of people in power at my university and they’re warmly, openly speaking to me, and I realize that some degree of compassion is there.  I would not impose any gesture, but would accept it.  I imagine, were I in a tighter bind, that to laze about would be discouraged.  But mere existence, one where I’m not wondering if I should shoot myself in the face, can carry on.

This black-and-white setting is not how the world is.  Pain and suffering and the crassness of redneck druggies are elements of the world, but not all of it.  This always happens with the less fortunate, and it always makes me cringe.  The family in the slum is outraged at the family in the multiple-story home.  Spread the wealth!  And maybe the wealthier family should spread the wealth, from a moral or political standpoint.  But the ideal in life is not for all of us to settle for less.  Equality can also mean all of us settling for more.

Last semester, my class volunteered at a food bank, then had a pizza party.  I had to reconcile the two actions.  What I’ve come to realize is that I shouldn’t feel particularly bad about my pizza party, nor should I be lording it over the impoverished.  Really, I like pizza, and it would be great if everyone could have a pizza party!  Let’s all stay up late and eat Chex Mix and LAN our Xboxes.  Not just me.  Not just my neighborhood, my city.

So you grew up knowing cruel people, influenced by a parent who was hurt by cruel people, constantly reminding you to stay away from cruel people.  Cruel people exist.  I survey the land of my youth and I see my parents; my grandparents; my friends; my neighbors, and rarely in my life have I encountered someone overtly cruel.  You speak of nowhere to go, but you have a friend or a friend of a friend.  You have a couch somewhere.  You have a car.  You have choices.  You have people who will cook breakfast for you in the morning, because I did.  Do.  And anyone’s welcome.  At the risk of pretending like all that goodness surrounds me, exclusively, it’s to be noted that this plague of kindness affects more than I.  You’re bound to find some somewhere, if you explore.

I appreciate the sentiments of love and romance, of how I’m “the one” and I’m exceedingly special.  But I think on what makes me that, and what I come up with, for the moment, are things like “goes well into the night talking about feely stuff” and “shares video games”.  Darling, if you’re going to be so enthusiastic about me, find something extraordinary about me.  Those are common characteristics of most common folk.

How the Internet Ruined Me

In the thick of West Virginia, there exists a gas station.  In that gas station, there exists a man.  This man (who may as well be a boy aside from an oddly prepubescent-looking mustache) has a naked woman tattooed onto his bony arm.  His t-shirt from the local emporium is marked by armpit sweat stains.  He gapes open the craggy maw, utters indistinguishable mumbles, and begins the transaction process.  I follow suit as best I can.

I don’t get it.  The transaction went just fine, but I don’t get that lack of self-awareness.  I’m so self-aware.  I know just how overweight I am (by 25-30 pounds).  I recognize my lack of autonomy.  I know my experience with the greater world has been limited, so I do the best I can where I’m at.  Thanks, Internet.

No, Internet, really.  Thanks a lot.  I mean that sincerely!  My family used to worry about the amount of time I spent in front of a screen till I started learning about the birthing process of giraffes or rising Middle Eastern conflict.  I used to play sports.  Well, I didn’t do anything more advanced than dick around with friends at a t-ball game, but I went outside.  Video games got me inside, then my dad’s computer got me inside.  I used the internet years before any of my friends.  Most of the time was spent going to Ninja Turtles fan websites or printing out SNES game guides, but I was there, using my legs less, getting fatter, learning more.  I think about the past fifteen years of my life now, the ones occupied with a screen shining on my face in the darkest parts of the night, and I’m pretty happy.  I know what racism is, what sexism is.  I know to avoid passive-aggression.  God knows if I kept playing sports it would have ended up with me date raping someone.

See, the fellow I met inWest Virginiaisn’t a bad guy, I would say, but I wouldn’t say he’s a good guy, either.  I didn’t get to know him!  I simply stood back and observed and saw some other-worldly resemblance of myself.  Where he fit the perfect “Redneck” stereotype, I had fit the perfect “Nerd” stereotype.  Where he listened to angry AM radio in his pickup on the way back to the trailer, I had parents who bought me toys “because they could” and had no cognizance that my glasses were too big for my face.  A wifebeater switched to a BIG DOGS t-shirt with Dragon Ball Z on it.  I’m so aware of it, now.  I looked so dumb.  I still look dumb, sometimes.  I just see these people and think “Are you so unaware?  Have you never forgotten to sleep due to constantly opening new Wikipedia tabs all night long?”  Do you know you are bigoted?  Do you know you are awful?  Do you know you are wrong?  I know I am bigoted.  I know I am awful.  I know I am wrong.  I know what I’m good at, too.

Down the road there’s a morbidly obese middle-aged woman who stops in her tracks, unaware of the traffic she’s blocking till the embarrassing moment where she recognizes and apologies, yet she does the same thing tomorrow.  There’s a wide-smiling pastor in the friendliest church in town kicking out the poor man for disagreeing with the way to stack chairs.  There’s a fourteen-year-old boy rebelling against his parents by putting on a furry tail and getting way into Nine Inch Nails.  There’s a cat deathly afraid of water for no particular reason at all.  I stand back and observe and think “Do they not know?  Are they unaware?”  Whittled down to a fine point, they are stereotypes of stereotypes.  What does the redneck feel when he types “redneck” into Google?  Does he know what a Google is?  Does he fear it?  Is it destroying ‘Murrca?

My life has been populated by technology and communication, and even in small towns in North or South CarolinaI feel this overwhelming sense of consciousness.  I am a good writer and will try my hardest to be a good person, but at any time I can look up my own little problems; the bump on my leg; the mole on my arm.  The implications of female-directed insults; the insensitivity of casual discrimination.  I see it and learn from it and suddenly I’m not twelve years old anymore, all assuming and condescending.  I don’t feel presumptuous or overbearing, just…a person.  I watch a movie, then I go to IMDB to see who wrote it.  I feel a heaviness in my chest, I type in the conditions.  I eat some French toast for breakfast, then I somehow end up in front of my laptop reading the entry for French toast.  (It dates to the 4th century!)  It’s called breathing.  If I were born only ten years earlier and had to do things like go to the library to pour through encyclopedias, I would have done the same thing.  So I just don’t get it.  I can’t imagine someone voting on a civil rights issue to never look up their topic in their search bar, or a specific religious belief never being thoroughly examined.

It’s so easy.  It’s just right there.  But maybe slack-jawed yokels have it right and don’t want to be reminded of their hilariously accurate caricatures, because I am acutely aware of my chubby ass making ramen to watch Japanese wrestling at three in the morning.  Still, I’d take it over being intolerant and partisan forever.  Well, I’m still sort of partisan.  If you’re going to start learning, try doing so without Internet Explorer.