Review Summary: Songs of slow decline? No, not quite yet.
mewithoutYou recorded Pale Horses
about ten minutes away from my old Philadelphia apartment. It’s still odd to see Studio 4 in Conshohocken
listed in the album sleeve, and even weirder to hear the band name-check suburban towns like Coatesville in the lyrics. They’ve always been a group synonymous with home for me, possessing both geographical and emotional proximity. I can still recall watching them open for Brand New/Thrice back in 2007 at the Electric Factory, and I immediately recognized that they weren’t your typical band. It might have been the way Aaron Weiss approached the fans, wearing raggy clothing and grinning a goofy smile during the setup just before he brought down the house with a performance that arguably toppled that of the headlining acts. Perhaps it was that the band stuck around to perform an encore with Lacey and Kensrue, capping what could only be described as the most blissful moment of my life. Maybe it didn’t truly sink in until the end of the show, when I saw them hanging out behind the venue just to chat with eager fans. Whatever it
was, I admired the hell out of them. I thought to myself, now there’s a band that really cares about what they do
. The eight years to follow would only reaffirm that initial assessment, as they’ve gone on to earn a reputation as one of the most committed and passionate groups in alternative music.
When I say that mewithoutYou isn’t your typical band though, it feels like the understatement of the century. I mean, Aaron Weiss eats out of trash cans (as part of a freegan lifestyle, of course). He rarely showers. The band’s tour bus runs on vegetable oil. I didn’t know any of that back in 2007, but if I did it only would have made me like them more. They’re the living embodiment of only taking what you need, and Weiss has even said on-record that he makes too much money being in a band…with a straight face, no less. It’s just how he and his fellow bandmates operate; they’re driven by their religious beliefs and an ambition to help others. Currently, Weiss is finishing his thesis on the intersection of faith and education for his doctorate in urban education, all the while serving as a professor at his alma mater, Temple University. Not bad for a dumpster-diving hippie. Besides, if living like a homeless person while ambitiously pursuing academia is the secret to over a decade of phenomenal music, then I say it ought to be the new standard by which all musicians conduct themselves.
Now six albums into their career, Pale Horses
is unquestionably the most challenging thing that they’ve ever put out. It’s not because it leaps into uncharted territory, as it is actually their most representative album to date – landing somewhere between the coarse shouting of Catch For Us the Foxes
and the campfire singalongs of It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright
. To say a record is “challenging” carries a boat load of implications, and not all of them are bad. Like a classic movie or novel, Pale Horses
reveals itself in layers. To listen to any mewithoutYou record is to accept the premise that the art of expression and poetry of lyrics are just as valuable as the music itself, which means that it takes several listens to fully appreciate. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I heard ‘Mexican War Streets’ that the lines, “I admit, it warms my heart to watch your world fall apart” and “To heck with all the drugs my parents did” really jumped out at me. Simple but heartbreaking passages like “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’ve liked my wife” from ‘Dorothy’ practically reduced me to tears, and I’ve been listening to Aaron Weiss for a while now. That’s part of what’s so impressive about Pale Horses
– even though it’s basically the quintessential mewithoutYou record, it still manages to catch you off guard.
also marks some of the band’s most impressive instrumental accomplishments. Take the pair of closers, ‘Birnam Wood’ and ‘Rainbow Signs’, for example. The former is marked by intriguing tempo shifts while the electric guitar riffs of the latter emit the energy of that H-bomb that Weiss so delicately sang about mere moments prior. It’s the kind of stuff we never would have heard on this album’s predecessor Ten Stories
, an outing that resided primarily in the realm of harmonious indie-rock. There’s also the way that ‘Lilac Queen’ goes from sounding delicate and fragile into a full-blown cacophony, during which Pontius-Pilate (for you Bible aficionados), the ISIS flag, and a vulture man are all referenced. As you can see, Weiss’ penchant for strangely intriguing symbolism wasn’t lost on Pale Horses
. There’s plenty to be explored on this record in terms of the band’s technical growth, especially for those who are used to mewithoutYou’s soft-of-late approach between It’s All Crazy…
and Ten Stories
On the other side of the coin, there are some clearly challenging aspects of Pale Horses
that actually do it a disservice. Outside of lead single ‘Red Cow’ and the peaceful late album gem ‘Magic Lantern Days’, not much here resonates melodically. Obviously, that’s a poor reason not to delve further into an album’s intricacies, especially when the band behind it is just as renowned for their words as they are for the music they play. However, the lyrics are (for the most part) more cryptic than they’ve ever been, which is saying a lot when you consider that Aaron Weiss regularly waxes poetic about the conundrum of human existence and utilizes animals to tell stories like they’re his own personal fables. Lines like “go search the world beneath, cladding breach at 3-mile beach, all spent fuel pools are full, it's all the same to me” are a little overcooked. The lyrics aren’t what’s wrong though, as I’ve already pointed out that they’re more or less up to par with the group’s standards. This album simply fails to grab
you the way that a mewithoutYou record should, and that boils down to something that may be frustratingly elusive at first.
The strength of every mewithoutYou album has always been Aaron Weiss’ ability to take a passage, deeply poetic or incredibly simple, and make it sound like the most important thing you’ve ever heard. Often, that could be credited to the way he’d spew out messages, like on Brother, Sister
when he shouted “one day the water’s gonna wash it away!” and we immediately believed him. God might as well have been flooding the Earth to rid it of evil, because that’s how convincing Aaron was in his demeanor. That level of passion hasn’t always required raucousness though, as even gentler verses like “I don't know anything about truth but I know falsehood when I see it" from Ten Stories
’ ‘Elephant In The Dock’ were equally as stirring. However, on Pale Horses
, Aaron Weiss finally sounds worn out. The lyrics are still excellent of course, but they’re not executed with the same fervor that we’re all used to hearing from him. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect so much out of him, especially considering that he’s done nothing but inspire us for over a decade. However, aside from the combo of ‘Red Cow’ and ‘Dorothy’, there’s not all that much on Pale Horses
that’s going to make a deep impact without forcing one to make tremendous work out of interpreting the lyrics. As graceful as the words are, the messages often feel lost.
is already drawing comparisons to mewithoutYou’s benchmark record Brother, Sister
, which if you listen to them side-by-side feels a little premature. Pale Horses
can’t match that album’s energy or lyrical prowess, even if it employs a similar stylistic approach. However, that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a superb record. After all, comparing mewithoutYou’s new release to their previous output is sort of like pitting DaVinci’s paintings against one another; they’re all excellent, it’s just a matter of picking apart minor details. In this case, Pale Horses
easily stands on its own as one of the year’s better albums. It entails almost all of the band’s greatest strengths, with the vigor that comes from a renewed focus on the post-hardcore stylings of yesteryear. It’s not mewithoutYou’s best album, but it shows no major cracks in the band’s unbelievably strong foundation. So when Aaron Weiss sings “pale horse songs of slow decline” to open and close the record, we can still smirk to ourselves and think no, not quite yet