Throughout their first four albums, mewithoutYou gradually expanded their post-hardcore sound until the unlikely folk-y departure of It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright. That record, although a masterpiece, proved to be divisive. The band’s record deal with Tooth & Nail ended and the group’s future seemed uncertain at the time, but they stuck together, and returned closer to their original sound while maintaining the increased melodic sensibility for their latest release Ten Stories. They’ve also kept the musical and lyrical complexity that’s been such a prominent part of their art.
In Ten Stories, the wreck of a circus train provides the means of escape for a number of animals who then explore psychological and philosophical terrain more than the landscape. In following these thoughtful beasts, lyricist Aaron Weiss tackles topics such as freedom, the loss of self, ontological concerns, and Ferris wheels. The lyrics are allusional and esoteric enough that one fan quickly assembled a glossary for the album, which works pretty effectively as a listening companion.
The disc provides enjoyment even as a backdrop, but it works best taken as a writerly text (Weiss has talked about Derrida and Foucault, and Barthesian approaches to the new album seem appropriate). Understanding the significance of “the Anabaptist girl” might aid in connecting Bear and Fox’s conversation to Elephant’s refusal to swear an oath. (It should be pointed out at this point that Weiss has largely dropped the spiritual meditations of his earlier work, despite these concerns.)
Other songs take on the issues of signs and signifieds, whether “things are just thoughts”, and epistemological uncertainty. It’s certainly heavy stuff, whether you’re arcing back a few thousand years in philosophy, tracing a path through Kantian concerns, or just glancing to the post-structuralists. It wouldn’t matter so much, though, if mewithoutYou didn’t make it matter. “Bear’s Vision of St. Agnes” warrants full analysis, with its narrative and thematic ties to the earlier track “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume” (and recurrent references to both Hamlet and Cuchulain), but what makes it so effective isn’t its formal qualities. Instead, it’s a moving story of a friend’s self-sacrifice, made more powerful by a physical exploration of the previously only abstract considerations (across several mewithoutYou albums) of the rejection of self. It’s one thing for Tiger to idly wonder “if the ‘I’ is an unintelligible lie”, but another thing for Bear to kill himself to save a friend. In an album so concerned with fakes (the Cardiff Giant, the Fiji Mermaid), it’s a stunning moment of reality.
Musically, the album reinforces the urgency of these lyrics, negating the possibility of receiving them as dry philosophical meditations or simple fables (the lack of didacticism helps, too). The band’s not chasing its Sunny Day Real Estate influences again, but it moves far more in that direction than you might have guessed after the last album. The electric guitars have returned to the foreground, and the group has recaptured its aggression, both musically and in Weiss’s shouted vocals. The arrangements (often done by Joshua Stamper) are more complex than the early albums, and Daniel Smith’s production provides the necessary punch.
After It’s All Crazy!, Ten Stories could be regarded as either another sharp creative turn or simply a return to normal after one deviant release. Reading it another way makes more sense: it seems like a summation of the band’s works. What the group gained in making its anomalous record is still there, yet it hasn’t lost anything that made it great. mewithoutYou managed to synthesize its various explorations into a richer sound, using the sort of palette necessary to adequately pummel the album’s deep meditations while properly expressing the emotional potency they contain.