After nearly two decades, mewithoutYou, an underground musical force whose music stretches from “Christian campfire songs” to room-shaking post-hardcore punk, will soon call it quits (Fryberger, “Saying ‘Goodbye’ in 2020”). The 2020 departure, however, will not be without plenty of blazed trails left in their wake. The indie rock group has always questioned “how far to push out into the unknown”, according to singer and lyricist Aaron Weiss, who has written about everything from post-breakup introspection to animals who survive a 19th Century circus train crash to android whales of the apocalypse during the life of the band (“About the Band”).
Though Weiss is by no means alone in the music world with his assertion that he wants to pave new ground, his lyrics have done just that, at least within certain circles. Weiss has been known to draw on passages from the Bible, literary modernists, philosophers, Sufi mystics, and Bob Dylan with his songwriting, and his words have brought on more than the occasional reference of hot water by indie music bloggers and Christian record store owners alike. Listeners are giving the music of mewithoutYou another go on the turntable after the band announced that they “will no longer be active” by the end of 2020, and it is safe to say that the lone f-bomb in the official mewithoutYou discography will garner special consideration (“Saying ‘Goodbye’ in 2020”).
MewithoutYou formed in 2001 and signed with Christian rock label Tooth & Nail Records later that year (Rodriguez). Weiss’ early lyrics often reflected Christian themes, quotes from scripture, and lines of blatant praise. In 2006’s Brother, Sister, for example, Weiss sings, “Lord, I could never show you anything as beautiful as You” (“Messes of Men”). Christian publications noted that the band “clearly sounded like a Christian band” and that the records “feel like Psalms at times” (Clairborne). Weiss was also known for spending time in a Christian-based commune, and he was at one point open about his religious leanings (Pearlman).
MewithoutYou’s lyrics first made waves in their Christian circles with the release of 2009’s It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright. Though the record maintains a strong bent toward the spiritual, some Christian music stores pulled the album from their shelves when they heard Weiss’ frank descriptions of sexuality in “Fig with a Bellyache” and his references to God as “Allah” in both the album’s opening track and the closing “Allah, Allah, Allah”, an allusion to the Sufi Muslim faith of his parents (Fryberger, Letsgofishing). Overall, though, many Christian fans remained supportive of the band. Even when mewithoutYou later left their long-time Christian label home and released 2012’s Ten Stories independently, Christian media like Christianity Today continued to offer positive reviews of their music (Larsen, Jones).
As Weiss’ religious beliefs shifted and affected his lyrics, the Philadelphia native showed little outward concern as to what the gatekeepers thought about the ways that his words painted his spirituality. According to Paul Matthew Harrison’s book, All the Clever Words on Pages [Band Biography Excerpts], Weiss faced questions about his personal religious beliefs after the release of It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright and its inclusion of pantheistic, panentheistic, and eastern religious imagery (51). He told one interviewer, “It’s hard to answer questions that have such deep meaning, so I can only sorta ask for help with the answer. God, you have to come and answer that, because I don’t know the answer” (52).
He reportedly went on to say that he felt that all his beliefs were false and more indicative of his situation in both time and place than absolute truth. He added that religious doctrine and theology were inadequate when addressing the great questions of life (52). In another interview, Weiss indicated that no one should take him seriously as a spiritual leader, that he instead seeks merely to be an entertainer (Caldwell).
However, fans still appeared to hold Weiss in high regard in 2015, when his use of the word “fuck” in “Rainbow Signs”, the final song of 2015’s Pale Horses, left some listeners slack-jawed and wide-eyed. After mewithoutYou released Pale Horses on Run for Cover Records, fans quickly turned to a Reddit thread to discuss what they thought they heard (“r/MewithoutYou – ‘Pale Horses’ Album Discussion”). Some listeners expressed disappointment, while others claimed they had not heard any cursing at all. In fact, on first listen, the choice of profanity may, like many of the intricacies in Weiss’ lyrics, slip past the listener without a lyric book.
Weiss does not drop his f-bomb during the track’s explosive climax, when he is screaming out apocalyptic imagery and feelings of doubt. Instead, he swears about his hairline in an early, quiet line about his wedding day. “Pale horse vows in a grave I-do-yes-definitely reply/ Smile for the camera at a ‘church’ nearby/ Threw a mute curse at the Boise sky/ For my fucked up Napoleon-of-St.-Helena-hairline,” Weiss sings softly (“Rainbow Signs”).
Despite the online discussions, those who knew Weiss were likely not surprised by the decision to include the swear. In some live versions of 2006’s “O’ Porcupine”, Weiss can be heard singing, “O’ porcupine perched low in the tree/ Your eyes to mine/ ‘you’d be well inclined not to fuck with me'”, though the album version of the song includes the word “mess” instead of the swear (“MewithoutYou Bottom Lounge Chicago 2/22/14”). Additionally, Harrison’s All the Clever Words on Pages (Pt.2) recounts a later live concert in which Weiss shouted “What the fuck is going on here?” during a rendition of “Wolf Am I! (And Shadow),” a clear change from the cleaner version on 2006’s Brother, Sister (51).
Weiss was also not the first figure from certain American Christian circles to use harsh language in his work. Tony Campolo, pastor and former spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton, famously used the word “shit” to highlight complacency in the church concerning the needs of the poor and hungry, and Pedro the Lion frontman David Bazan sang, “You were too busy steering/ The conversation toward the Lord/ To hear the voice of the Spirit/ Begging you to shut the fuck up” in 2004’s “Foregone Conclusions” (Acuff). Campolo became a champion of evangelicals who split from the movement’s frequent conservatism to favor progressive politics, and Bazan lost his faith and chronicled the experience in his 2009 debut solo album, Curse Your Branches (Meritt, Staff Writer).
So, was Weiss’ using the f-bomb to signal his clear departure from Christianity? Was he falling in with current cultural trends with more relaxed use of harsh language by others? Was he knowingly putting himself at odds with American conservatism? Was this simple word choice meant to have any specific impact for the listener? Even if the word choice may at first seem inconsequential, a close study of its use in this song and in the record as a whole reveals much more about the writer and his view of language and culture.
In short, Weiss’ decision to swear appears to parody cultural mores and the way the average American listener in the early 21st Century tends to ascribe a certain level of power to the word “fuck”. To contrast this language choice, in “Mexican War Streets”, a previous track on the record, Weiss sings, “to heck with all the drugs my parents did,” referring to his parents’ use of hallucinogenic drugs and the connection between those drugs and the mental illness his parents suffered (The Wandering Wolf). Weiss said in an interview with Yoni Wolf that, in part, he is dissuaded from using mind-altering drugs because of the history of use in his family (ibid). Here, the apparently weighty subject of drug use and its effects on Weiss’ life calls for the use of the word “heck”, a word with little weight in the 21st Century American lexicon. The comparison between this word choice and the swear over Weiss’ hairline merits consideration, and that consideration brings the writer’s linguistic understanding to life.
To better understand Weiss’ words, and to in turn make that comparison, one must first understand his approach to language. In a 2016 interview, just months after the release of Pale Horses, Weiss expressed some skepticism over the power of language in general. He said, “I fear language isn’t up to the task of capturing the fullness of reality, to convey the depths of meaning of our existence. I question where language can be adequate for certain tasks” (Burleson). He had previously explored the flimsiness of language through philosophical terms in 2012’s Ten Stories, when he sang, “Provisionally ‘I’, practically alive/ Mistook signs for signified” (“Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume”).
The lyric evokes the works of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist whose work on semiotics in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century laid the groundwork for linguists decades later (Editors). Here, Weiss echoes the concept of separation between the sign, the signifier, and the signified. Simply put, the sign is said to be composed of a signifier, the sound or image itself, and the signified, the concept associated with the signifier (Chadwick). In “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume”, then, Weiss suggests that the narrator mistakenly took the words themselves for the concepts those words represent.
In Pale Horses, Weiss takes his linguistic play a step further and uses the signifier to subvert the signified, though he does not again reference the semiotic terms as he did in the prior record. Weiss’ hairline is “fucked up”, but his parents’ drug use only calls for “heck”, though the connotations of the words would appear to call for the terms to be reversed (“Rainbow Signs”, “Mexican War Streets”). Both words are perceived as carrying connotations that add a certain weight to the things they are referencing. The fact that Weiss includes both words in the record allows the listener to weigh them against one another and better consider the ways they affect the words around them and the concepts therein. The result is a sort of linguistic joke based on the listener’s expectations and a commentary on Weiss’ beliefs concerning the inadequacy of language. Had he only said one word or the other, the listener would not be able to make the comparison and explore the awkward nature of the words in relation to their meanings.
This deconstruction of language then moves past the understanding of signs, signifiers, and the signified, and alters what is supposed to be signified within them. Weiss has moved into the poststructural and reflects thinkers like Jacques Derrida. In the 20th Century, Derrida turned Saussure’s concept on its head when he claimed that there is no real relationship between the signifier and the signified, and that, instead, there is no true, concrete meaning to the signs that compose the universe in the minds of human beings (Cosette). In fact, Weiss admitted to a familiarity with Derrida in 2012 when an interviewer asked him about the aforementioned line from Ten Stories:
When Weiss reappropriates the weight of words like “heck” and “fuck”, he draws on Derrida’s thinking as he shows that the conventional understanding of these words and the meanings assigned to them are arbitrary. He, in turn, shows that they have no real power at all, except when the reader or listener ascribes power to them, and that is based on the cultural and personal history of the reader or listener and the relationships between words themselves.
Of course, this whole line of thinking relies on the perception of power in the word “fuck” by the intended listener. Songwriters often use curse words, specifically the f-bomb, in their work, provided that the word is censored in American radio broadcasts and the track is tagged as “explicit” on the web. What is it, then, that makes its use in “Rainbow Signs” noteworthy? The answer partially lies in its singular use.
Throughout the nearly two decades that mewithoutYou has released music, the word has only appeared once. The only other word that would likely be perceived as a curse word in the band’s catalog is Weiss’ use of “bastards” in the track “D-Minor”, which is also on 2015’s Pale Horses. For most 21st century American listeners, though, “bastards” is the sort of word that has some acceptable public use, and it is permissible on radio airwaves and daytime television. This leaves Weiss’s f-bomb alone in the field of explicitly tabooed language and, as a result, gives listeners more reason to consider its choice after 15 years and a handful of full-length records without a hint of cursing.
Conversely, the use of the “heck” on the record is considered to hold much less weight by most 21st Century American listeners, as it is not at all tabooed and is, in fact, a stand-in for “hell” or “fuck,” both of which are considered to be much harsher. It is notable, then, that Weiss used the lighter “heck” when he could have very well used either of the tabooed words without crossing new boundaries, considering he went on to say “fuck” later in the same record. Therefore, the listener should consider the words and the contrast between them after studying the record, rather than to let them pass by their ears as mere coincidences in a mass of carefully drawn references and other specific language choices.
These words have additional operative qualities in the context of the record as well. Though the inclusion of the f-bomb does, indeed, offer the listener this playful examination of Weiss’ understanding of language, it can also illuminate the listener’s understanding of his relationship with the event in which he uses it, that is, his relationship with his wedding day. Throughout Pale Horses, Weiss expresses some hesitation with his decision to marry after years of thinking that matrimony was outside his life aims.
In “C-Minor” on 2006’s Brother, Sister, Weiss considers a life without sex or romantic entaglement. “I’m still (ehh… technically…) a virgin/ After 27 years/ Which never bothered me before/What’s maybe 50 more?” Weiss asks. Nearly a decade later, though, Weiss married at the same time mewithoutYou wrote Pale Horses (Caldwell). In an interview with The Phoenix New Times, Weiss described how his wedding upended his previous choice to stay celebate:
Though Weiss generally speaks positively about his wife and their relationship, lyrics throughout
Pale Horses describe a much darker turmoil over how the marriage affected his understanding of who he was in relation to the divine. In “D-Minor”, the sequel to the aforementioned song referencing Weiss’s virginity in the mid-2000s, he describes the consummation immediately following the wedding by saying, “We awkwardly shielded the curious eyes/ Of innocent pines from the forest floor/ From the frying pan of a celibate man/ To the fires of the premature”.
Elsewhere in the song, he writes that a “divorce”, possibly between him and his unwavering loyalty to the divine through celibacy, was confirmed “before the marriage began”. He drives home the spiritual implications therein by saying, “This is not the first time God has died”. a number of times during the song’s bridge.
When Weiss is not considering his marriage on the record, he is often mourning his father, who died in the years before Pale Horses’ release (Pearlman). In “Dorothy”, he sets the marriage alongside the death as he sings, “I said, ‘If you can change your shape that easily/ Can you take the form of my dead father?/ Because I think he would’ve liked to meet my wife’/ And I know for a fact he would have liked my wife”. Though both events, the death and the marriage, are presented as dark, painful transitions throughout the record, the distance between the two creates a sense of imbalance and difficulty. On one hand, there is an instance of a gained partner, and on the other, a deep sense of loss concerning a loved one.
With these thematic elements in mind, the listener can see how Weiss’ use of the words “fuck” and “heck” reinforces his inner turmoil. When Weiss says his hairline is “fucked up”, he emphasizes the most superficial element of the wedding, his appearance. Alternatively, when he does not grant the life-altering drug experiences his parents had with such harsh language, he minimizes the effects of that experience to the listener. When the listener then compares the language concerning both situations, they are left with the notion that how Weiss looked on his wedding day was more important to him than the fact that his parents had trouble with drugs in the past.
The irony in that comparison becomes starker when the listener considers that the placement of the line concerning Weiss’s parents and their drug use is in the middle of a scene in which he considers suicide. He writes, “On the West End Bridge looking down at the Ohio/ I tremble at the thought of what’s often referred to as ‘karma'”, and a few lines later, “The colorful hills talked me down from the bridge/ To heck with all the drugs my parents did” (“Mexican War Streets”).
This is not to say that Weiss genuinely felt that his receding hairline is weightier than the risky choices of those he loves, including his recently deceased father, and his own thoughts of suicide. Though the harsh language does appear to grant the wedding day a peculiar seriousness, an ironic understanding of the language, reinforced by the deconstruction of the words themselves, instead hints at Weiss’ trouble grappling with the fact that he is entering into a marriage around the same time that his father died. It is as if he is poking fun at how seriously he takes his marriage in comparison to the other things that take place around him. A darker take on the subject leads the listener to consider the word choice as a serious self-criticism, a portrayal of guilt in association with his decision to take the notion of weddings, or, more specifically, of superficiality associated with weddings, namely hairlines, seriously.
Regardless of the reason, Weiss’s use of “fuck” in “Rainbow Signs” certainly impacted listeners. Surely the sorts of music stores who pulled It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright! from their shelves would not have let Pale Horses into their stock. Fans of the band have taken to the internet to share their views on the word choice and to ask one another for help in understanding it.
Four years later, as mewithoutYou prepares to call it quits, Weiss’s “mute curse at the Boise sky” remains the strongest curse in the mewithoutYou library, and their final releases, an EP and LP released in 2018, span more than an hour without a single swear word between them (“Rainbow Signs”). Perhaps, having made his point, Weiss found it time to move on to other concepts, because, of course, Weiss did write, or steal, that “movement” is the “sign of the Father” (“Paper Hanger”). Perhaps the years that follow the lifespan of this indie staple will bring a new sign from above, and the members of mewithoutYou will move on to new words and new songs. At any rate, fans can only hope that their time of repose is short.