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.
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.