mewithoutYou: “It’s all crazy! It’s all false! It’s all a dream! It’s alright!”
The first time my wife walked through the living room and heard me listening to mewithoutYou’s new album, she asked me, without a trace if irony or sarcasm, if I was listening to a children’s record.
I don’t think she meant it as a knock, and I don’t mean it as one when I repeat it here. In a weird way, the record does indeed sound like a record made for children– albeit the kind that only really cool parents would actually play on the nursery boombox. It’s not because it’s juvenile, or immature, or that the lyrics voice particularly childish concerns; it’s got more to do with a certain sense of, well, childlikeness on the part of singer and lyricist Aaron Weiss, who brings a certain half-mad fairy-tale logic to a set of songs in which talking animals allegorize Bible stories and sentient fruits and vegetables echo wisdom from ancient Sufi philosophers, all as though it’s the most natural thing in the world.
If his story-time poetics possess something of childhood’s innocence and imagination, his actual writing brings out something of childhood’s uninhibited vigor and enthusiasm– albeit with a decidedly grown-up vocabulary. Weiss practically trips over himself, sometimes, to spit out long strings of ten-dollar words, some of them antiquated and some outright arcane. It’s what the hipsters are calling “thesaurus rock,” but make no mistake: What Weiss is doing is very different from what The Decemberists and Joanna Newsom– two similarly literate (and at times a bit pretentious) artists– are doing. Colin Meloy, you see, writes theater pieces, tall tales, and historical fiction; Weiss writes fables. Complex as his songs can be, most of them could probably be boiled down into a moral or metaphysical proverb– but where would the fun be in that?
So yes: These little spiritual fables in the guise of barnyard vignettes are wordy and at times convoluted, but they’re also pretty great. Weiss sometimes seems to keep them from sinking under their own awkward weight by his own giddy glee, a sense of wonder that causes these songs to soar even though, as a vocalist, he’s rather lacking in charisma or personality. When he puts his own spin on Aesop in “The Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie,” it’s an absolute hoot: A spirited spitfire of silly words and culinary metaphors in which Weiss relishes every word, and so does the listener. And yet, it’s the album’s more grown-up numbers on which he seems to shine, perhaps only because they stand out from the fables: “Every Thought a Thought of You” is a praise chorus wrapped up like a slinky rock song, eventually erupting into jazz cacophony, while “The Angel if Death Visits David’s Room” is a masterpiece of linguistic precision, in which every line seems to pack within it layers of theological and metaphysical insight.
There’s a great irony here, of course: Namely, this set of animal fables is actually the most mature work the band has yet recorded– or at the very least, the sound of a band that’s growing up. There is a sense of peaceful surrender in these songs, as though Weiss is content, for the first time, to simply be– not exactly a minor change in disposition given the band’s prior penchant for seeringly soul-searching works of anger and anguish. Weiss drops the screamo vocal approach and his band lightens up and gets folksy, reulting in an album that isn’t exactly pastoral, maybe, but is at least comparatively serene. But while serene it may be, boring it is not; Weiss and his colleagues have recruited none other than Daniel Smith to produce, and it’s hard to imagine a better artist-producer fit. Smith, of course, wrote and recorded the album Ships under his Danielson moniker, a record that is quite probably the best album released in the 2000s that can honestly and unironically be dubbed “Christian rock.” He brings some of that Danielson fervor to these songs while rooting them in American folk idioms, making for an album that’s varied and layered.
I’ve referenced Christianity three times in this review now, so I shouldn’t put this off any longer: Yes, this is an album that’s written from the perspective of something nearing religious piety, and its themes are profoundly spiritual and theological. That’s not the same as saying that this is a work of Christian orthodoxy, however; Weiss, it seems, grew up in a home equally influenced by the three major monotheistic religions, and his lyrics exude a mysticism that combines Christianity with Islam; not only does he quote Sufi texts, but he even refers to God with the Aramaic Allah. It raises some difficult issues for Christian believers, and while it’s without question a work of real spiritual honesty and sophistication, I’ll leave it to the listener to make up his or her own mind about the ways in which that spirituality is expressed. (I will say that I find it interesting that most major evangelical publications that have covered this album seem to have little issue with the religious syncretism on display.)
But then, that kind of gray-area duality is oddly fitting for an album that’s not merely existential, but outright mystical; that mixes hard gravity with cheerful whimsy. That mix makes it not just a legitimate heir to Ships— and to the entire bizarro-outsider Christian rock community Daniel Smith has godfathered– but also an album that qualifies, I think, as devotional, in the best sense of the term: An album in which spiritual pilgrimage is made not with anguish but with contentment, not through confession but through the beauty of song and story.