Is it mewithoutYou, mewithoutyou, or Mewithoutyou? It seems every time I see the band name it is capitalized in a different way. This may be a simple mistake or it could be a deliberate change employed by the band itself. Either way, it sums up the stark changes of philosophy in the band’s last three albums.
I was introduced to mewithoutYou’s then most current album, Brother, Sister in the summer after my freshman year of college. They were in the ambiguous, possibly Christian, category that is so appealing to those who want more than the merely positive and encouraging Christian pop music of the radio. I was initially not a fan of Aaron Weiss’ penchant for blurring the line between singing, speaking, and yelling. However, I enjoyed the instrumentation so I kept listening and eventually got used to his voice and began to appreciate how it gave emphasis to the words. So often singing will function as just another sound among instruments. Weiss’ unique style gave a focus the lyric as a distinct and different element of music. His lyrics were bizarre to say the least, and, I assumed, some sort of stream of consciousness. Then after a year and a half of listening to the CD fairly regularly, it suddenly hit me that I understood what he was talking about. I came to appreciate the complexity, unity, and profundity of his lyrics more with each play through. Never before had I heard an album that rewarded each new listening with so much and for so long. In a age of cheap one-liners and cliche love songs, I had found a jewel. A true poet.
Brother, Sister is made up of a series of songs telling the story of one thing – me without You. Aaron Weiss skillfully navigates the vague territory where desire for a woman’s love shifts into a realization of a more metaphysical and transcendent need. Both the the title Brother, Sister and the imagery of the narratives suggest the story of a man and woman, but there is much more going on. In many ways Weiss reminds me of a pre-conversion T.S. Eliot, particularly as in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” They both use a rich collection of personal symbols and narrative which are difficult to understand at first and flicker between earthly desire and a craving for a greater significance.
The album both beings and ends with the line “I do not exist”. While the band embraces ambiguity and subjectivity, it seems apparent that Brother, Sister is about a journey beginning with unrequited love and concluding with a mystic union with God and the obliteration of self. “You want to set me free? Well I’m told that can only come from a union with the One who never dies.” The first song, “Messes of Men,” describes his conclusion, serving as a kind of thesis for the following album. The following songs give details of the various stages in his journey towards mystic union. Then the last song, “In a Sweater Poorly Knit,” gives an overview of the whole journey and echoes the conclusion of the thesis.
The beauty of Brother, Sister is in its holistic unity, which I believe is the result of the band having a spiritual center, a firm belief in the “You.” Even if the listener doesn’t agree with their conclusions, there is something deeply refreshing about good art that has both an appreciation for mystery and firm conviction.
Unfortunately, as often happens with bands, mewithoutyou became mired and dragged down by their fascination with subjectivity and ambiguity. Their next album It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright is a muddled mix of philosophy and religion and lacks the overall cohesiveness of their previous album. The song “A stick, A Carrot, and A String” captures the gospel beautifully, yet they end their album with “Allah, Allah, Allah” a song suggesting a sort of pantheistic god. There are many beautiful and well written songs in this album, however, the intellectual consistency of Brother, Sister is lacking. This album is a buffet of religions and philosophies where no one idea is given the dignity of being held up as wholly true. It seems as if the band has lost their spiritual center and are floundering in uncertainty, not sure if they’re about the “me” or the “you.”
While I still enjoy Mewithoutyou’s unique sound, their latest album, Ten Stories, left me disappointed. In all but a few of the songs they have only a tenuous suggestion of narrative, the stable foundation that carried the listener through their enigmatic lyrics. This is particularly frustrating since both the album title and their published description of it suggest they will rely heavily on story. If Brother, Sister is telling the story of me without You, then Ten Stories is the muddled result of too much focus on Me without you. Weiss is a self-admitted “searcher” for spiritual truth, and it seems their latest album is result of the “searchers” being too enamored of their own quest rather than the beauty and truth they seek at its conclusion.
The album is much more character focused, which allows Weiss to “not have to worry about being consistent in any ideological sense. There was no danger of contradicting myself because I didn’t identify ‘myself’ with any particular character all that directly.” as he says in an interview here. As a band it seems they have abandoned their willingness to tackle deep spiritual issues. That willingness to take a firm stand, even if they realized later they were wrong and were willing to admit it is what elevated them above the noise of so many pseudo-spiritual bands. mewithoutYou’s lyrics have always been elusive, but with patience and contemplation one could begin to understand their themes while still puzzling over enigmatic details. However, Ten Stories does not reward persistent listening in the same way as their previous work.
While their more recent work has taken a turn away from the best, they are nonetheless a talented and noteworthy group of musicians. They create what so few bands today seem capable of; serious and thoughtful music that invites, and indeed, requires serious contemplation and rewards the patient listener.
Artists should be encouraged by mewithoutYou’s sincere and authentic searching, and reminded to hold fast to the truth rather than being blown about by every idle wind and the worship of self. Authenticity and truth are marks of great art, and an artist should see something beyond and outside of himself as the catalyst for his work.
Listeners should be reminded by mewithoutYou’s music to not be content with “safe” music that neither challenges nor deals with the brokenness of the world. Instead, they should seek artists that are not afraid to tackle the mysteries and complexities of life. Even if the artists themselves are not seeking to glorify the one true God, they are telling the truth about the world as they see it. Be like the apostle Paul and use such artists as opportunities to speak truth to those who are searching for that which they cannot name without Christ’s revelation. Show them that what they are searching for is the “You” and that “me” alone can never satisfy.
“Messes of Men”
“In a Sweater Poorly Knit”