At this point, it might be worth wondering if mewithoutYou constitutes a "Christian band"...
At this point, it might be worth wondering if mewithoutYou constitutes a “Christian band”. It’s a label people are quick to apply, refute, begrudge, etc. With Weiss’s leanings and the band’s affiliation with Tooth and Nail Records, the question is bound to come up. The band’s answer is no, and while that often feels like a marketing ploy, in this case in seems like humility (the band isn’t speaking from a confirmed position of capital-t Truth), as well as a reflection that not everyone in the band believes exactly the same things (and pinning down each of those things remains difficult). It also raises the semantic argument of whether a non-living thing can be “Christian”. But that’s a can of worms for another time.
So far, Weiss’s lyrics haven’t been too specifically Christian, but that influence would increase with 2006’s Brother, Sister, which takes both its name and some of its lyrical influence from Francis of Assisi’s writings. Animals make their first prominent appearances here as characters or images (this interest becomes even more pronounced on album number four). When I asked Weiss how he’d explain the use of animals in his songwriting, he simply replied, “Harder for me to explain why we would’ve ever written about anything else…”
The music for this record expands even further from Catch for Us the Foxes. The band plays more with both dynamics and tempo changes. Weiss sings more, and brings in group vocals as well. We get a broader instrumentation, with the introduction of horns, harp, melodica, and upright bass. There are more quiet acoustic moments, but the band can still absolutely unleash manic, high-energy performances.
“C-Minor” offers what might be the central statement of the album: “Open wide my door, my Lord / To whatever makes me love you more”. The line comes in the midst of a resistance of isolation (the “voice of loneliness and fear” is named as the devil). There’s resilience disguised as resignation here: “I’m still technically a virgin after 27 years / Which never bothered me before / What’s maybe 50 more?” Going to the dark places now, though, means not catharsis but a search for the bud of hope.
Christian music or not, the band is still concerned with community. The album opens with the lines “‘I do not exist,’ / We faithfully insist”, giving a unity to a group, even in its denial of existence and its “sailing in our separate ships”. On Brother, Sister, though, community takes on a more expansive form, becoming more interested, in a sense, in unity. Now, with its speaking animals, confession as a means to connection, and constantly seeking world, everything seems to be reaching toward the same thing.
“O, Porcupine” (featuring guest vocals from Jeremy Enigk) makes this idea more explicit. Animals and insects go about their business, while the narrator takes us to the Psalms and the gospel of Luke (and Don McLean) before quoting Romans: “All creation groans ... Shhh!” And the music stops. When it resumes, our narrative group “shares a silent meal and a pot of chamomile” and acknowledges, “Gypsies like us should be stamped in solidarity”. With a moment of wordplay, our singer is told, “You have a decent ear for notes but you can’t yet appreciate harmony”. The moment echoes “Torches Together” from the previous album, as well as the verse that builds up to it. The band answers by playing the most dissonant sound on any mewithoutYou album. But Weiss doesn’t leave us there. In a stretch unlisted in the liner notes, he finds a shining light that is God. At this point, God (or “G-d”, as Weiss would be more comfortable with) is no longer a theological consolation, or an abstract concept, but the unifying presence in our challenging world.
If God is the centering element of this album, it doesn’t mean that things have gotten easier. Weiss’s voice still strains to get everything out. It still rains (literally on the adulterous opener “Messes of Men”), but the opportunity for something more is nearer to hand. Weiss sings on “The Sun and the Moon”: “I want to see both worlds as One!” The chance for a singular vision is drawing nearer.
Not that everything makes sense. The album has a series of soft pieces about spiders of various colors, each with a refrain similar to “Orange spider, orange leaf / Confirms my deepest held belief”. After countless listens, I’m not convinced I can explicate these songs reasonably well, so I won’t try. I didn’t know what to ask Weiss about them, so I simply said, “[Insert intelligent question about spiders here]?”, hoping for some insight into one of the band’s most puzzling tropes. Instead, Weiss answered, “[insert foolish answer]”. It’s the first time we’ve really seen his sense of humor, but that part of his personality would begin to open up for the next album, and it would contribute greatly to the disc’s artistic success.
mewithoutYou’s music continues its expanding, and arguably softening, development on its fourth full-length, the exclamatorily entitled it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright. Daniel Smith produced the record, and while it sounds nothing like a Danielson album, it’s a hint at what’s going on. Neutral Milk Hotel and the Decemberists are the touchpoints here, rough as they are, as mewithoutYou still has a more raging (but not angry) quality about it. Weiss has mostly lost the screaming. The band sounds like something breaking apart, but not in a negative way.
While Weiss’s Christian influences continue to become more pronounced, his Sufi learnings show up more on this disc. When asked whether Sufi thought has influenced his religious views, he replies, “Too hard to say; I’m sorry. Might be like asking a tree how it was ‘influenced’ by the seed. Granting a bit of help from the earth, the sun, and the rain, it was literally born from the seed!” I like to think that Weiss talks like this all the time, and that if I sat down for lunch with him, I’d be somewhat amused, somewhat intrigued, and spend much of my time trying to get him to say something banally ridiculous. This is probably not the case. Strip away the lyric bits I’ve grabbed and a couple quotes, and you realize that Weiss isn’t a street prophet—he’s just some dude.
The Christian question arises: Is he one? Is this stuff getting too syncretic? Answers are going to be tough (especially for the first question, to which I can only answer “seemingly”). To the latter, I think not. It reads to me like a fairly Christian album with some philosophical and artistic influences from other cultures, with the thinking about purification, turning from the world, desire, etc., simply applied to religious faith that Sufism is not always harmonized with. You might disagree. With so many influences present, I wanted to know the one work that really influenced Weiss that might surprise us. He answered, “the rhyming dictionary”. I only half-believe—the band is willing to get away from rhyme, and the schemes are never forced.
- Multiple songs MySpace