Now Hear This!: mewithoutYou [Philadelphia, PA]

mewithoutYou
it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright
Tooth & Nail
2009-05-19

It’s unlikely that a post-hardcore band that transformed into an indie-pop act while filling out its complex religious and philosophical traditions would have made the best album of 2009. Given the fact that the group apparently doesn’t own a spacebar and has some capitalization issues (depending on where you stand), mewithoutYou’s success is all the more unlikely. Throw in the fact that driving force Aaron Weiss can still occasionally be found dumpster diving, living as if he’s in a first century church, and essentially foregoing possessions, then things are just plain weird. But all that helps explain what makes this band so singular, and so essential.

Right from the 2002 debut album [A–>B] Life, mewithouYou had something different going on. That record, the only one I’d be comfortable calling post-hardcore, has its flubs. The burgeoning lyricist has those moments that would make a diehard emo fan cringe, but at the same time, something unusual began to develop. On a cursory listen, the album seems to be about failed relationships (or maybe just one, taken from different perspectives). There’s plenty of hurt here, and some anger (and even some French, since it’s come to that). You could almost pass this one by if you didn’t pay attention.

But then, four tracks in, we get the central clue to the album. In “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt” (a nod to Vonnegut’s ironic fictional epitaph), the singer paraphrases John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”. It’s maybe too easy a reference to suggest high art — the sort of poem people have to study, vaguely appreciate and then save for Trivial Pursuit (or pop music allusions) — but the album changes based on this recognition. The break-ups, deaths, and separations throughout are charged by this spiritual matter. The disc — like Donne’s poem with its innuendo — wavers between the sensual and the spiritual, but both categories are consumed by the concern first voiced in French — “Je leverai les yeux a toi” — but the question becomes to whom the eyes are lifted, and to what gain.

[A–>B] Life stays more or less on the comfortable side of impenetrable, but it is a challenging listen, both in terms of parsability and of emotional withstanding (letting go tearlessly, handing someone to God, trying to find hope). The album becomes more complex in its repeated themes and images (a corny line about putting on happiness like a dress returns more powerfully on a second listen, where its origin reveals itself two tracks earlier in self-indictment: “I try but cannot remember the / Color of your eyes / Just the shape of your dress” (and of course the self-indictment fades when the dress turns to joy).

It’s a remarkable record that requires repeated listens to pull out all its nuances, allusions, and meanings. But after this one, mewithoutYou would actually get interesting.

As a brief aside, we should figure out who these guys are. Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the band came together around the start of the century, primarily led by Weiss. Weiss and his brother, guitarist Michael, came from a family with a Jewish, Episcopalian, and Sufi background, with the latter taking prominence in their home life. Weiss became a Christian as a teen, and that faith has led him into an abnormal lifestyle (hence the dumpster-diving, the vegetable-oil van, the time at The Simple Way intentional community, etc.). Lyrically, the Christian thought is pervaded by a sort of seeking, indicative of the challenges of approaching God. Weiss’s lyrics rely much on Sufi thought as well, and you’ll find references to everything from the Bible to the Smiths to Rumi to Leonard Cohen to Bob Dylan to Saint Francis to Lao Tzu to old-time gospel in his work.

With all that in mind, it’s possible and fun to explore the band’s lyrical content. The songs are mysterious without being opaque, and offer the challenges of poetry (but they’re lyrics). Weiss goes to some dark places, but he’s frequently hopeful (and his reach seems to be upwards). As spiritual as he can get, the songs come grounded in lived experience, full of flesh and dirt.

Even so, the musical changes remain a remarkable part of the band’s journey. What started with a hardcore base now sounds closer to a muscular Neutral Milk Hotel, with an orchestral indie sound at times. The gap between the first and fourth album couldn’t be more different, but going through the discography in sequence, it makes more sense. As Weiss said by email recently, “Comparing now with when we started, yeah we’ve changed pretty drastically. But at the time, any given day, it didn’t feel much like ‘making changes’; it was just happening. Like watching your kid grow up — you don’t notice him getting bigger day by day, but when you look at a picture from eight years ago … my goodness, what happened??”

Those changes are noticeable between [A–>B] Life and 2004’s Catch for Us the Foxes. The debut works as post-hardcore, and there are some traces of Fugazi there that would continue, while Sunny Day Real Estate isn’t an unreasonable touchpoint (mewithoutYou tends slightly into early emo sounds on the first disc). It’s not a simple album, but the aesthetics expand for the follow-up. Weiss relies less on screaming, more on spoken lines, or rather speak-sing parts in shouted bursts, and even some stretches that could pass as singing. I catch the Butthole Surfers in spots, but you could find some goth moments and some post-punk as well (Interpol-like guitars show up now and again). Yet it’s a very coherent album; the band expands its sound even while staying focused and consistent.

Lyrically, it’s a little more assured. I’m not convinced it’s better, as some of those early missteps had some charm in their urgency. The upward reach isn’t always apparent here, but the sideways reach is. Where the debut focused on immediate one-on-one relationships, Catch for Us the Foxes starts to look at community. In opener “Torches Together”, Weiss asks, “So why this safe distance, why this curious look? / Why tear out single pages when you can throw away the book? / Why pluck one string when you can strum the guitar?” The song seeks a path through loneliness to something larger, and it merely hints at the questioning that propels the album.

Of course, communities are made up of smaller relationships, and the band looks at those concerns, too. This album’s world is built through making connections, whether with “the prettiest bag lady I ever met” or one’s beloved. “The Soviet” provides the album’s title line, drawing from the Song of Solomon, seeking wholeheartedly, praying for anything that could steal true joy to be removed, even while acknowledging the tripping, half-competent path that most of us take to love (“When I looked down life if to pray / Well, I was looking down her dress”). The grapes from that song (and from the Song of Solomon’s second chapter) return in the closing number “Son of a Widow”, crushed into wine (complicating the spiritual and physical concerns of the band’s name). The moment echoes some reflections from the “Paper Hanger”, and the song suggests the emptiness of base ambition (“We have every intention to be failures in this world”) as it gives way to death while considering resurrection and the afterlife, thoughts that would reappear in later work.

If it sounds as though the band has a message buried in there, it might be a bit of a surprise. Weiss says they have “less and less of a message ‘to’ an audience. More and more becoming the audience, hearing the spiritual message that’s been everywhere all along.” The sense of community has been a growing factor in the group’s work, and it would come to a magnificent peak before too long.

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.

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

Everyone

Everywhere

Everything

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.

RATING 10 / 10
PopMatters