Title: it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright
Label: Tooth & Nail Records
Length: 11 Tracks / 44:55
MewithoutYou has always numbered among those bands whose sound is an “acquired taste”. From the start, there has never been a shred of pop-informed accessibility to their work.
Remember back in 2002 when [A->B] Life came out? Remember the first time you heard vocalist Aaron Weiss’ bizarre mix of talking and shouting? Remember being sucked in by the energy of it all – the broken heart of the protagonist, the churn and ferocity of the music to match?
Remember 2004, when Catch For Us The Foxes came out? Remember the intricate bass lines and the swirling crescendos of the guitars? Remember hearing Aaron talk quietly and, in his fumbling but endearing way, sing?
Remember how well all the new instrumentation introduced on 2006’s Brother, Sister seemed to fit? Remember how it added a lot to the depth and variety of their sound?
Remember falling in love with mewithoutYou?
If you’re like me, there are two key things that made it happen.
First, excellent musicianship. I know I’m not the only one who wept on the inside when Dan Pishock left after Catch For Us The Foxes – taking his ridiculously complicated and beautiful bass work with him. I know I’m not the only one who can’t help but dance or at least make spastic body movements when the opening peals of “January 1979” rise up, carrying with them a wash of joy.
Second, Aaron Weiss. Don’t his lyrics have a way of shining light on such difficult things? Don’t his words get stuck in your head such that you find yourself using them as profound poetic injections in the middle of conversations about God, theology, and life in general? Doesn’t his delivery make you grin?
MewithoutYou’s strengths have always been the music and the man in front – and they have been such great strengths that those who enjoy them might even consider them to be superpowers. Such is the draw that mewithoutYou has upon their fanbase – faithful, passionate, and intensely proud of the intimate and meaningful work that ‘their’ band has given them.
I’m one of them. I first heard the band shortly after the release of their debut, and was happily carried along through second and third releases. Each one has been unique, yet all bear threads of similarity – music and man. I was sucked in first by the lyrics. Long before I grew to love and enjoy Aaron’s unique and, for most people, unlistenable delivery… it was his words that caught me. Consistently insightful, consistently grappling with the difficult yet most important things of life – meaning, existence, God, pain, relationships, and most of all the complicated realities of following Jesus in our present world. The grooves and pulses of the music didn’t hurt, either.
As you know, mewithoutYou has a new album and it comes out very soon. It is called it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright, and for many, just like me, the album’s title will summarize their first response upon hearing it. After some thought, I have a feeling that this kind of initial response actually provides a good framework for understanding this new album, as well as the many differences (and occasional similarities) it has with everything the band has done before.
So, without further ado:
It’s All Crazy!
When you start up this new album, and the opening carnival-organ notes of “every thought a Thought of You” hit your ears, it should be apparent very quickly that musically, this isn’t the mewithoutYou you’ve become accustomed to. What’s incredible is that this first track is about the closest to their “old sound” that you’ll find here. A couple of lines in, the band’s trademark guitars make their entrance (and, in many ways, take their leave – more on that in a second).
Behind the producer’s desk is none other than Dan Smith, who you might be familiar with from his work with Sufjan Stevens as well as heading up Danielson and all of its variants (Tri-Danielson, Danielson Family, Danielson Famile, etc). His fingerprints are all over the sound that mewithoutYou has adopted here – high falsetto background vocals make numerous appearances, not to mention generous and sprawling instrumentation from such varied sources as tubas, violins, xylophones, squeaky hinges, trumpets, pianos, banjos, and ultimately an entire orchestra. The trademark guitars still bring the heavy from time to time, but such occasions are few and far between – typically only at the climax of certain songs. If they’re present otherwise, they are mixed low and the other instruments take center stage. That said, there’s a lot more acoustic guitar (and bass) than electric, and really, that’s the craziest thing about this new album. Musically, this is really much more of a folk record than the post-hardcore or “artcore” we’re used to hearing from these guys.
Think about the coloured Spider vignettes on Brother, Sister and imagine them expanded to album-length, surrounded with lush accompaniment, and just generally tweaked in all manners of interesting, perhaps even “crazy” ways. That’s really what’s ‘crazy’ about it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright – it represents a huge shift in sound. To think that the direction taken on this new project was hinted at most clearly by the brief and incidental “arachnid interludes” of the preceding album makes it all the more perplexing.
It’s All False!
This album will probably be controversial, but you could have said that about any of their records – remember “Seven Sisters”, when Aaron said “Oh my God – I want to shoot myself just thinking about it!” and followed that up with “You think I don’t mean what I say? Well I mean every word I say!”. It’s not as though mewithoutYou have shied away from tense subject matter before – thoughts of suicide being the most easily recognizable.
The reason this album might be controversial is handily summarized by the title of the last song on the record: “Allah, Allah, Allah.” It’s the content rooted in faith and theology that will be most upsetting and divisive for both long-time fans and new listeners. Sometimes, it will be in a very good way – for instance Aaron’s proclamation on “a Stick, a Carrot and String” of Jesus as “our Lord”, come to replace the sacrificial system with his willing and obedient sacrifice on the Cross. Other times, as in the above example of “Allah…”, the knee-jerk reaction will likely be negative or at least confused. Let’s examine this.
Now, particularly in the West, we associate the word “Allah” with the specific god of Islam. Generally, the result of combining a song title such as “Allah, Allah, Allah” with our Islam-specific association is that we might conclude that mewithoutYou has converted to Islam. Listening through the song likely wouldn’t do much to assuage those fears, either. The problem lies in the association. The word “Allah” is merely the word for “God” in the language of Arabic. Aaron and his brother Michael (who plays guitar for the band) grew up with one of the most interesting religious heritages one might conceive of. They grew up with Sufi parents, their father a convert from Judaism and their mother from Episcopalianism. Sufism, for lack of a more concise description, is like mystical Islam – they believe, contrary to traditional Islamic teaching, that God is personal and personable rather than lofty and removed. For this, and other reasons, Sufism is about as close as any form of Islam gets to many of the most important distinctives of Christianity. It’s not the Truth, but it has elements of truth in it – many of which have inspired Aaron from the very beginning. None of this is a secret to fans of the band, who have likely already spent some time in the past investigating the Sufi poets and writers that Aaron derives much of his inspiration from. That said, this kind of far-from-normal background behind the lyrics creates an interesting and complicated set of juxtapositions for the listener. Begun on their sophomore effort, Aaron continues his pattern of utilizing Arabic primarily for purposes of praise (think back to “My Exit, Unfair”). With these things in mind, I would suggest that his use of “Allah” on the final track is simply that – just using another ‘name’ for God. It’s akin to calling Jesus “Yeshua” or “Haysoos” or perhaps the Arabic “Isa” – which, incidentally, Aaron has already done on Brother, Sister’s “The Dryness and the Rain”.
More than ever before, Aaron draws from his Sufi roots on this album – less from his usual source (the poet Rumi), and more from the “shiek” Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who seems to be big on writing children’s stories – some of which Aaron retells. With all of this in mind, there’s a lot on the record that might cause some to cry “False!” reactively. However, I am certain that repeated listens (and a good, thorough time checking out the lyrics) will reveal that Aaron has delved into these Sufi proverbs and stories and dug up a lot of actual truth. The numerous places where Sufism parallels Christianity seem to be a treasure trove for interesting, thought-provoking content. Resist the initial urge to call it all “False”.
It’s All a Dream!
Aaron isn’t shouting! At all! Well, he might for a brief second at the beginning of “Bullet To Binary (Pt. 2)”, but that may have more to do with paying homage to the original song than with any desire to revisit old territory.
Actually, “breaking new ground” might be the best way to describe the lyrical content of the record… “storytelling” also comes to mind. There is, after all, a truckload of stories on this record – fables and tales and parables, as it were. They range from the apparently light-hearted (“the Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie”) to the biblically-inspired (“the Angel of Death came to David’s room”), to simple and elegant spiritual metaphor (“the King Beetle on a Coconut Estate”), to what can only be described as a Christmas song (“a Stick, a Carrot and String”). The cast is equally as varied, from animals and bugs, to baked goods and the ingredients needed to make them, to vegetables and plants. I’m reminded of Brother, Sister‘s “O Porcupine”, which reminded us that “all creation groans… listen to it!”. This record feels like a response to that admonition. In many ways, these stories could very well be called ‘dreams’. Each one serves to share a moral or a collection of thoughts, touching on subjects like mortality, the mystery of God, and the fleeting and ultimately empty fancies of our sexual appetites. The aforementioned ‘Christmas song’ (“a Stick, a Carrot and String”) is perhaps the best example of the approach Aaron has taken this time around. Shifting the focus from one stanza to another, the story of Christ’s birth and sacrifice are told through the animals that feature in those accounts (ie. the sacrificial lambs, the manger’s horse, the donkey Christ rode into Jerusalem, and of course the titular Snake – our Enemy). The song is powerful, despite its loose pacing and the warbles of the accordion that permeate it. Ultimately, it captures some of the incredible wonder induced by considering Jesus’ willing and obedient sacrifice on the cross. So, in that sense, this is a record full of ‘dreams and visions’ in the form of parables and fables and stories – believe me when I say that the lessons therein are helpful and worthwhile.
In the pair of months I’ve had to preview this album, I’ve gone back and forth on myself many times as to whether or not I enjoyed this new direction taken by mewithoutYou. After much reflection, primarily on what I’ve written about above, I trust you can understand that despite the “craziness”, the “falsehood”, and the “dreams”, this record is alright. MewithoutYou has taken some pretty massive steps away from their “sound” (many of them steps towards the folky, experimental sound of guys like Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, and the Psalters). Further, a new and less Aaron-centered lyrical direction and much more listener-friendly vocal style has opened the content up to a much wider audience. As much as I might want to play the snob and say it’s “not as good as old mewithoutYou”… I’m not convinced. For the first time ever, my wife could stand listening for more than 10 seconds. Call me crazy, but in my books that counts for something. MewithoutYou has chosen not to keep making Catch For Us The Foxes, and I believe they’re all the better for it.
So, it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright is crazy, false, dreamy, and ultimately… it’s quite alright in spite of these massive changes. Lyrically, it’s more sedate and thoughtful. Musically, it’s restrained in tone yet expansively layered. This is a worthy addition to the mewithoutYou canon, an unconventional but very enjoyable collection of songs that will alienate many long-time fans, but will create many more new ones.
Remember falling in love with mewithoutYou? I do. It just happened to me all over again.
4.5 Cookies out of 5
For More Info: toothandnail.com | mewithoutyou.com
Standout Tracks: every thought a Thought Of You; the Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie; a Stick, a Carrot and String; the King Beetle on a Coconut Estate; Allah, Allah, Allah.
Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
May 15th, 2009