Album: Ten Stories
Label: Pine Street
Earlier in the week, I spent some time bemoaning the fact that too many bands had nothing memorable or distinctive about their music, such that they melted all too easily into a growing mass of conformity. This is not a criticism anyone could ever level at mewithoutyou (criticism is reserved exclusively for that irksome stylized spelling). Though one can easily identify bands with a similar approach – free, largely spoken verse and tempestuous instrumentation – the depth and complexity of their music is largely unmatched. It is rare to feel humbled by the themes of an album, rarer still to find yourself so uniquely engrossed in it. Indeed, in a world where people can become famous for repeating the word ‘baby’ over and over again (this is the sole time I’ll willingly bring up JBiebz), there’s a lot to be said for a band that can combine such beleaguered lyrics to extravagant music and succeed. This is not a band you can listen to unattached. If you can bear to disentangle yourself from the ongoing and deeply underwhelming arguments as to the band’s Christian affiliations or lack thereof, there’s a whole world of existential angst just waiting to wrap itself around you.
Ten Stories revisits the style of mewithoutyou’s earlier work, sidestepping the polarizing approach used for 2009’s It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright. There are elements of the latter evident here, but they’re subliminal enough to call back the older fans. The album is based on the concept of a train derailing in Montana in the 19th Century – hence “February, 1878,” the first song – and its animal inhabitants adventuring away in different directions. It’s dark and gloomy but intensely beautiful; with rabid verses intent on not so much evoking sadness and compassion as instilling them. Stylistically, it’s very impressive, with whole songs seemingly designed around the nature and the plight of the animal protagonists inhabiting them. “Elephant in the Dock” for instance is sullen and ghostlike, the music a shuddering afterthought beneath Aaron Weiss’ despondent vocals. The lyrics alone construct such a fortress of feeling that the instruments need only play along, and it builds so insidiously that the sudden, shocking refrain of ‘hang the elephant!’ feels apocalyptic. “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume” is, by contrast, riled and impassioned. Its frenzied vocals and crashing music match the wildness of the creature. The song wraps itself intimately about the listener before building into a collision of shrillness and perversion. The addition of Hayley Williams’ backing vocals adds a fragile, wispy effect and maximizes the song’s troubling power.
“Grist for the Malady Mill” builds upon the afflicted, unsettling opening track with raw and brazen instruments. The chorus is dark and piercing, all the more unnerving for the detached tone of Weiss’ vocals. Like a fragment from the promised land, it is cold and gritty and affecting. “East Enders Wives” segues in almost unseen in its wake, a slight and unintrusive song until the percussion fires it up with an electric current of anticipation. Yet, in spite of its tempo, it’s a poignant track spurred by ghostlike female vocals and a persistently disillusioned atmosphere. The acoustic notes throb sadly in the background to lend it an ever more haunting presence. The scale of the band’s music befits songs as rich and moving as this one, as it creates a suitably fragmented world in which their words can flourish. The mystical themes and imagery may come across as pompous to some but they evoke a realm of lush, compelling thought that allows listeners to engage as and how they will. It isn’t necessary to be swept up in philosophical musings to enjoy Ten Stories but for those who do, the music is a searing accompaniment that offers lustre and inspiration for the journey.
“Aubergine” is the very antithesis of the chaotic “Elephant in the Dock,” a wandering, dreamy track that imbues its playful rhythms with colour and charm. “Nine Stories” is a more consuming experience – wispy, piercing, and earthier than the others. It’s the most overt treatment of the lost nostalgia that’s a seamless and perennial presence on the album, and yet jettisons this for simmering intensity with a bass-driven resurgence in its dying minute. “Bear’s Vision of St. Agnes” feels like a period piece sourced from yesteryear, which makes its searing emotion all the more haunting. Weiss’ vocals are exemplary, conveying so much even with his minimal delivery. “All Circles” then celebrates the coming together of the twisted, deranged, eccentric fraternity that has driven the album. It presents a warmer, more collective embrace and ties everything together with a feeling of cyclical unity.
Ten Stories is as striking and bewitching as anything mewithoutyou have ever done and a testament to the unique and vivid power of their storytelling. It certainly feels powerful and coherent enough to endear the masses and provides a singular listening experience, as tremulous and willful as the animals it depicts. It goes without saying that the band may be an acquired taste but intelligence and complex thought are increasingly rare in music, and this provides a refreshingly intense listening experience.
Review written by Grace Duffy