Now Hear This!

mewithoutYou [Philadelphia, PA]

by Justin Cober-Lake

18 May 2010


Even amid the jokes, that quest for unity -- or is it community? -- continues...

Even amid the jokes, that quest for unity—or is it community?—continues. I don’t know what word to use, and I’m fine with that. “Togetherness” is too banal and physical; “oneness” is too new agey; “solidarity” is too Polish (and political, besides). There’s a great reaching here, and the opening line of the album points at this increase: “every thought a Thought of You” (band spelling idiosyncracies reaching lyric sheets), with the self not erased but subdued. The thinking turns into a search, with “every look in search of You,” and that describes the adventures of the rest of the album.

We get the sense quickly with the next song that something has loosened; that some weight has been lightened (this word choice will seem like a pun by the end of the article—you’re right to assume it wasn’t meant as such). “the Fox, the Crow and the Cookie” adapts an M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen story that you might know better as one of Aesop’s fables. The song plays like a comic interlude, with children overhearing swear words, fox and bird punning, and the general goofiness of it, until the lesson changes from Aesop’s tip about pride to a comment on “letting all attachments go”.

We could go on about the jokes throughout the album (something has clearly gotten into Weiss since his previous songwriting—he’s not exactly David Cross, but he’s almost a gas). It’d be fun to consider the juxtposition of sailing birth canals with deep self-reflection (“Fig with a Bellyache” thinks about sexuality in ways that would be absurd if they weren’t so necessary), but we’d be better served (unless you really need a laugh) to stick with this sense of letting go. One of the ways Weiss—who owns very little—draws near to God is to rid himself of ephemeral attachments. It’s not self-denial when it’s release, and that’s why a phrase like “goodbye, I!” can become almost anthemic.

“a Stick, a Carrot & String” points out the strength of Jesus’s lack of acquisitive desire, noting that he not only welcomed the emptyhanded, but that he succeeded in taking his cup through that sort of release. The Jesus of the song accepts the Father’s will, saying, “What else here to do? / What else me but you?” before crushing the serpent “beneath the Foot of Your not wanting anything”. It’s a more complex argument than just “possessions are bad.” The implication here is that escaping your own silly desires is integral to accepting the will of another, and to drawing closer to that other.

That drawing close allows heightened perception as the characters of the album look at the world around them. In the catchy “Timothy Hay” (about a grass and not an oddly named theologian), trials, hardships, and even political resistance lead people to discover and announce to their mom that “we found a better Mom we call ‘God’”. Mom, being selfless and open-eyed, responds with a song of her own, joyfully announcing, “What a beautiful God there must be!” It’s a stunning twist, and a lovely depiction of the release from self in the search for the divine.

One of the album’s more demanding songs, “the King Beetle on a Coconut Estate” tells the tale of a king searching for “the Great Mystery”. After several of his people fail in their attempts to find anything more than a burning light, the king realizes his children have a truer father, and announces that “just as a Flower in its Frangrance are one / So must each of you and this Father become”. The King Beetle then flies into the fire, not dying, but becoming “utterly changed in the Fire”.

It’s unclear exactly what the ramifications are here, whether the bug has been purified in the fire like gold or whether he has merged with God. It’s important to note that the king’s last act was to divest himself and his family of their possessions, saying “Now distribute my scepter, my crown and my throne / And all we’ve called ‘wealth’ to the poor and alone”. The passage recalls Jeremiah 22:16: “‘He judged the cause of the poor and needy; Then it was well. Was not this knowing Me?’ says the Lord.” Aid to those in need is an integral step not only in serving, but also in knowing God.

The album’s ultimate lesson in storing up our treasure comes in one of its top songs, “the Angel of Death came to David’s room”. The song tells the tale of an angel pointing out to the Biblical King David that everything he’s done—slaying Goliath and accumulating lessons to pass on to Solomon—comes to nothing. Like everyone, he has to leave. As David resists, the angel becomes more challenging, asking, heartbreakingly, “Come now, David! Where’s Bathsheba gone? / And where’ve your binoculars and rooftops gone? / And the unexpected Baby-from-the-bath-night gone?” All our efforts not only add up to nothing, but contain grief and error and problems. It’s the sum of a magnificent life in a few tough lines, and it should cause us to think. The next song answers with “goodbye, I!”

But if that sounds dark, it gets better. The album strives for union, and even from a worldly perspective, that would be impossible without forgiveness. The songs on this disc are loaded with grace, mercy, and forgiveness en route to an ultimate justification to God (in the theological sense, not in the sense of rationalizing). The Crow finds its peace, Jesus conquers the serpent and his accusation, and a disappointed child “couldn’t help but sing!” In “bullet to Binary (pt. two)”, which revisits a moment of death from the debut album, the singer meditates on reaping and sowing, and all the hurt and desperation that brings. Finally, he realizes:

We all well know
We’re gonna reap what we sow
But Grace, we all know,
Can take the place of all we owe,
So why not let’s Forgive
All the time?

This forgiveness becomes possible when you understand your relationship to those around you, and put their needs first. In “Cattail Down”, deer explain to travelers that “you’re not you ... you’re Everyone Else (in the forgetting of your self).”

These twin concerns of unity and forgiveness come to a triumphant head in the album’s final track, titled with a series of characters best transliterated as “Allah, Allah, Allah”. As an aside of sorts, I asked Weiss how he has found his audiences reacting to this language, given that there’s a certain Christian audience that’s hearing a traditionally Islamic term. According to interviews I’d seen, Weiss had been optimistic early, but when I spoke to him, he’d had time to gauge actual reactions. He wrote, “I don’t remember if I was confident that people would all accept it happily; if so, I was mistaken. BUT, any real confidence wasn’t born out of a sense of how it would turn out, but instead, surrendering all responsibility so that, whatever comes of it, fine by me.” (Jesusfreakhideout offers one not unreasonable explanation for the strange choice here.)

In this track, the search is over, where God is found “in everywhere we look”, “in everyone we see”, “in every blade of grass”. With this mystical experience comes that ability to forgive. It would probably be worth typing out the whole song if it wasn’t probably illegal—and it needs to be heard anyway. But I’ve heard few descriptions of God’s grace as plain as: “Lay your faithless head down / In necessity’s Cotton Hand / there’s a Love that never changes / No matter what you’ve done”. With this knowledge of grace and forgiveness, true community becomes possible, with the whole orchestra joining in. The music comes unhinged, and the lone singer is joined by a choir in time for the invitation “come down and join our band”. It gets noisy, and then quiet (a brief rest for looking), and then the album’s title comes and it makes sense now. Then the band cuts loose again. It’s a post-epiphanic moment where ecstatic surprise turns to contemplated joy that has to be shared.

And that could be the band’s final statement. If you’ve released one of the best albums in recent memory, maybe it’s hard to say where you go from here. MewithoutYou’s contract with Tooth & Nail has been fulfilled now, and when asked what’s next on that front, Weiss replied, “Our experience with Tooth and Nail has been awesome, but of course it’s tough to look too far in the future. Tonight, my dad and I go to a baby shower…” Well, if not in a business sense, maybe we could at least get an explanation of the next aesthetic or thematic stretch. Weiss explains, “We’re mostly back in school now, so that’s the more immediate focus. Show up to our classes on time, keep up with our homework, read the assigned articles. Yes, and try to keep our wandering eyes off the poor young ladies…” Yep, still just a regular dude. Just one whose band has done nothing but turn out remarkable music for about a decade. Let’s hope they find what they’re searching for, but that they keep making music anyway.


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