Review Summary: Be like a tree and let the dead leaves drop.
"One time I asked Aaron if he had advice for a spiritual seeker like me. He responded "Advice - No. I have tea."
There aren’t many true left turns in mewithoutYou’s long career, but I do enjoy how the band has a knack for subtly bucking expectations. After two years of speculations that the band had now finally reached its end following the truly climatic Pale Horses, and another year of brimming hype after reports that the upcoming record might be the band’s heaviest ever, of course the next release for the band is their second alt-folk record.
The resulting [untitled] e.p. is a subtly stunning record – for several reasons. One of the many reasons mewithoutYou has maintained their relevancy and creative edge over the 16 years they’ve been a band is because they are never stagnant. One can find songs in every mewithoutYou record which one can appropriately surmise the band would have been incapable of recording even the record they wrote immediately before (a feat that’s accomplished again in this e.p. with "Cities of the Plain"). The band's trajectory is straightforward but relentless, and they are always pushing the limits of the comfort zones they set. This e.p., for me, is a true payoff of that dynamic. The most comparable record to [untitled] is “It’s all Crazy…”, but as truly compelling as that record turned out to be, there’ll always be something gimmicky about that time period in the band. One certainly couldn’t be at fault for viewing “It’s All Crazy…” as a kind of detour, as a side project that somehow snuck into the band’s main discography.
One cannot levy any of these complaints against [untitled]. First and foremost, the e.p. is a testament to the continual growth of the band, where at once a sound that was jarring and out-of-place now feels firmly entrenched within the band’s soundscape. The top moments of this e.p. carry the same dynamics as this band’s greatest post-hardcore tracks, "August 6th", in particular, shows the same interplay and composition between the band that makes their greatest songs remarkable. The climaxes on this record give me the same rush, make me taste the same musical blood, as “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore”, “Julia” and “Rainbow Signs.” The fact that Aaron’s wavering voice, almost whispering, fading into the background beneath roaring guitars, echoing that “that insect was mechanized” feels just as exhilarating as him screaming on top of his lungs shows perfectly just how proficient this band has become. One Youtube comment, simple as it may, has always stood out to me as being indicative of this record. “This is real high level stuff”, one commenter remarked about "Cities of the Plain", and damn right it is, almost all of it is.
There are several songs here that stand among the band’s best, two of which I’ve already mention multiple times.The way "Bethlehem, WV" peels off its layers to leave just Aaron Weiss and his acoustic guitar, trembling and fragile, is shiver-inducing. "Cities of the Plain" shows the same mastery of dynamics and build-up that "August 6th" does, but it’s slow and haunting ambient opening, stopping the album in its tracks and suddenly bringing tension to the slightest guitar strum, is harrowing, and more than that, it’s entirely unique amongst their entire discography. Perhaps the most noteworthy track though is "Kristy w/ the Sparkling Teeth". Pale Horse is the first record since Catch Us For The Foxes that was almost entirely bereft of humor. Aaron’s wit will return in [Untitled], as sharp as ever, but I’d argue it first shows up here in the entirely unexpectedly bright country ditty that closes out a record that has been nothing but 22 minutes of existential dread before it. It carries the same musical smirk that was throughout “It’s all Crazy” and just like that record pulled off many times, "Kristy" is somehow also an absurdly good song, the easy interplay between the guitars, combined with distant horns in the background, given it an incredibly serene feel.
[untitled] easily rids itself of the trope of the throwaway e.p. companion to the record, but that’s not the only reason it’s a stunning record. Out of any record yet penned by mewithoutYou, [untitled ep] is the one that carries the most complete and vivid narrative out of all of them. It’s funny to say this in a way, because of the two major events that are detailed in this e.p., neither of which does the listener receive any concrete details about. The first six songs detail a mental breakdown Aaron encountered on a West Virginian highway, the specifics of which are entirely absent. "Kristy", appropriate to its tonal shift, details the revelation that comes after the breakdown, although again, it’s anyone’s guess about who Kristy is, or why her comforting smile is of such importance to Aaron, or what exactly that revelation is.
What is instead given is a detailed depiction of all the mental realities that lead to Aaron’s depicted breakdown in West Virginia. The records stretches out like the surrealist works of Picasso the e.p. itself refers to, giving the listener a dreamlike abstract tour of Aaron’s state. The record centers around two images, the biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the bombing of Guernica, Spain at the outset of World War Two, representing two facets of the mental breakdown Aaron encountered on that faithful night in West Virginia. The first three tracks, Bethlehem WV to Dirty Air, set the scene, describing the fallout from Aaron’s fathers’ death, depicted in Pale Horses. Elliot Weiss is literally depicted as a vampire in all three of these tracks, sucking not only the meaning from the present, but the validity of Aaron’s faith and his mental sanity. Bethlehem, W.V, begins with an account of both the funeral of Elliot Weiss and also a possible funeral of God (vague references to Nietzsche abound). “Some counterfeit ideas form ideas all their own, I watched them spread for years to my unsuspecting bones,” Aaron remarks, the counterfeit ideas both representing the mental illness he is now confronting and the faith he has proclaimed all these years. Notice too, the title of the track, "Bethlehem, WV" , the Bethlehem in question not even a paltry impression of the Bethlehem the biblical Jesus was born in.
This trifecta of grief, mental illness and mental crisis, is compounded upon again and again by the next two tracks, until the album almost literally restarts itself with Cities of the Plain, where the first judgment comes. "Cities of the Plain" is one of the most scripturally dense songs of mewithoutYou’s scripturally dense career, detailing the internal machinations of Aaron’s crisis of faith through biblical images of destruction and judgment contained throughout the Old Testament. In it, Aaron compares himself to the pharaoh of Exodus and the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, but unlike the pharaoh, it was not his choice for his heart to harden towards God, but rather, he proclaims the hardening of his heart as a determination of God himself. In the song, it is not the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, but their children, who suffered judgment due to their parent’s sins, just as Aaron faces the collapse of his faith due to the spiritual and mental inheritance he’s gained from his father. Both subvert the biblical stories, depicting a rightful judgment, but of a subject who had no path but towards the judgement.
And that’s where the biblical allusions almost entirely end, further demonstrating the collapse of faith displayed in the record. The next three songs are amazingly secular in nature, far more spiritually barren than anything other song Aaron has penned. "Existential Dread, Six Hours Time" replaces scriptures and Gnosticism with Blade Runner and Carl Jung archetypes. And certainly enough, the “preconscious insect” depicted in that song re-emerges in the second judgment of the album - the mental breakdown caused from the breakdown of his spiritual belief - as a giant mechanical (counterfeit) insect, “legs on both highway sides” in West Virgina - a frightful physical manifestation of Aaron's mental illness. The mental chaos which precedes its appearance compared metaphorically to the devastation of Guernica through an aerial campaign.
"Kristy w/ the Sparkling Teeth", therefore, serves as the epilogue and the conclusion, depicting both an ending and a moving on. And really the song is a celebration of the creative process, where the dead songs that stood idly by as a metaphysical structure is built in “Dirty Air” now themselves form the tower Aaron depicts himself and his band climbing upwards, a poetic depiction of how trauma prevents artistic production until it itself allows and makes it possible. The creation of the e.p., Aaron therefore proclaims, is himself moving on and recovering from the collapse. “One delusion runs its course, its companion thereupon begins”, Aaron sings. The delusion behind "Pale Horses" and this e.p. has come to an end, and just as through Bethlehem comes the birth of Christ, Bethlehem, WV, in its counterfeit ways, is the rebirth of a still very flawed Aaron.
I'd like to now make the remark that all of that convoluted and meaningful mess above is my insufficient and woefully incomplete attempt to explain only 25 minutes of music. The (untitled) e.p. is far from perfect, "Winter Solstice (alt. version)" feels a tad redundant compared to its superior LP version, and "Existential Dread, Six Hours Time" is a worthy addition to the record due to its bold experimentation but is only a serviceable song at best, not rising to the quality of the others. But what one will find within this record is musical moments that will rival any found within 2018 and within those songs a truly mind-boggling depth.
The next delusion to run its course will come to fruition almost immediately in the [Untitled] LP, where Aaron will move on from the troubles depicted within Pale Horses and this e.p. and face a host of trials that stem directly from it. But for all of its sound and fury, [Untitled] will be possibly the most complete musical statement of mewithoutYou’s career, and also, in surprising ways, their most spiritual and hopeful in a decade. But first comes the necessary travails of this record, as essential as the LP that proceeds it and every single record that came before it.