Review Summary: That same old dream's trapped in my mind.
Aaron Weiss has made a career of obsessively questioning; he's long traded in matters of self-doubt, both spiritually and emotionally; he's done battle with the meaning of words, whether they be biblical, philosophical, or something much more personal (although, as ever, the assertion of self shades all of these topics intrinsically.) All this to say, the themes of alienation, faith, hopelessness, death, and yearning presented on Ten Stories is nothing new. However, here, Weiss is pushing forward his hardest yet to break the barriers of expression and self, writing in a winding, slanted accumulative blend of biblical, moral, philosophical, and narrative musings that join breathless flights of vibrant imagery with heartrending reflections on suicide, sacrifice, and autonomy and fate. Here, more than ever before, Weiss is fighting for the very meaning of language to present itself, revolving around these topics in myriad different angles, and seeming to always end up in the same place. This is stated plainly (or, as plainly as a notoriously florid writer such as Weiss can achieve) numerous times on Ten Stories.
Two of the album's main characters, Fox and Bear, spend the majority of the narrative mired in reverie, be it a nightmarish permutation of the present or an open-hearted yearning for the past. In 'Fox's Dream of the Log Flume', it is actually a dream of Bear's that takes center stage; he shares a quietly blissful memory of being with his love "in the blistering heat of the Asbury pier, sat quiet as monks on the ferris wheel". This calming rumination is quickly soured by Bear sharing with her what is possibly a joke gone awry, but more than likely is a shameful truth: "Do you ever have that recurring fantasy where you push little kids from the top of the rides?" It's a pitch black anecdote that exposes the bruising underbelly of black comedy: behind every smirk is a grimace. This aggrieved recollection is exacerbated by further failure; he proposes and is spurned, the memory haunting him "like a fiberglass ghost in the attic." Beneath the layers of these memories and dreams and commingling of the two is a very lucid, pulsing hurt. It is this logic, and resultant conclusion, that many of these characters share. This is where the theme of autonomy and fate comes heavily into play. Burdened with these wounds from the past, Bear is discontent with the circumstances of his present; having been liberated from his performative existence at the circus has led him to a wilderness as mentally concrete as it is physically disorienting, his "compass shot", only "sailing waywardly on."
As stated before, this is the prevailing means of communication amongst the majority of the characters within this narrative; within that same song, Fox responds with a nightmare of his own of Bear jumping from the top of the log flume: "I landed beside your remains on the stone, where your cold fingers wrapped around my ankle bone, while maybe ten feet away was a star thousands of times the size of our sun exploding like the tiny balloons you'd throw darts at." This epiphanous proclamation is nothing less than the appearance of God himself, while later, in 'Bear's Vision of St. Agnes', this prophecy is heartbreakingly consummated, as Bear flings himself from the cliffs, with a decidedly more earthbound outcome: "Ten more feet, and nothing moves." The hopes and beliefs of the characters are repeatedly questioned, or dashed completely, and this sows the seeds of a deep, implacable discontent. In 'Nine Stories', Owl shares what is possibly a reminisce, or might be a pipe dream of the ensuing freedom she's been granted. In increasingly larger than life and lusciously opulent language, Owl shares that she's "slept inside the shoe of the world's tallest man", "been to the Arfaks where the Sicklebills fly, seen Tangier's acrobatics nine stories high", then asserts "but I've never seen anything like you." There is, however, a possibly telling reveal in the same breath, as Owl states "I was there in Appomattox back in '65, when the general arrived" and follows it with a winking "but I've never been in this room before!" This is followed by what is the most darkly heartsick and disillusioned exchange on the album; Walrus responds with tell of "that same old dream trapped in my mind, bound in rope and on the firing line." That this is simply a dream and does not come to fruition causes Walrus to "wake up disappointed every time." He then asserts "if that old thorn is still buried in your side, Jacob knows a ladder you can climb", seemingly calling out Owl on her illusions of grandeur with a rebuke that is every bit as much a fantastical and deeply felt yearning for living, although a different sort altogether. In the final verse, Owl responds that "if the pleasures of your heavens ever end, that very ladder just as well descends." Here, these two characters are gridlocked in an existential battle of will that exists on the same plane but couldn't seem further away from each other. It's telling that it's suggested that Owl is the real victim here; by conjuring up such grand but ultimately hollow and dishonest stories, it's implied that she is the one that has experienced a true death of self, moreso than Walrus, who covets a life after death but atleast starkly admits that he longs for the very true, very real permanence of earthly death. This song exists as a sort of culmination of the themes presented throughout Ten Stories; in its potent mixture of fantasy and realism, it counteracts dream logic with the dull, nightmarish actuality that these trainwrecked and grief-wracked characters exist in.
It's a masterful balancing act that carries over into the musical side of things; the instrumentals seem to be almost interstitial, existing in an atmospheric haze of needling guitars that progress into blooming bursts of tuneful, jaunty riffing. 'Cardiff Giant' contains a tropical, strutting wail of a lead riff that hops and stomps its way to a bridge that is distinctly murkier, Weiss' passionate yelps receding to a lulling instrumental ebbing and flowing to close it out. 'Aubergine' contains these blushing, drawn out guitar moans so swooning, it recalls the marriage of atmosphere and warmth that Radiohead so mastered on In Rainbows. 'Fox's Dream of the Log Flume' might be the most unassumingly adventurous track here, beginning with pensive and foreboding needling and chugging, carrying itself along with an angular, slightly fuzzed out riff, and ending with a heartbeat thud of the drums and close mic'd acoustic strumming complemented by a duet with Paramore's Hayley Williams. There's even more still that could be praised on this album: the inventive and splendidly produced drum work, the versatile performance of Weiss' vocals, that reach new heights of simple, melodious beauty here, the throbbing bass acting as an essential anchor at pivotal moments. In the end, though, as with any previous mewithoutYou release, it comes down to the words. In its inescapable grasp for a precision of language to communicate its thoughts, it's as lost, expressive, and questioning as its characters are, existing in a colorfully rendered, yet depressingly drawn, fabled world that manages to feel bother larger than life and remarkably intimate. It's most telling of all that final track 'All Circles' is the only one found here that could be called truly propulsive, almost tripping over itself to reach its conclusion that "all circles begin with an end, they come back 'round again." Ten Stories reveals itself to be about the stories we tell ourselves, the rationalizations and the desires that keep us going back to the beginning, to the very end.