Review Summary: Things fall apart.
"I asked him about his dad’s mental illness. “Do you ever fear with both of your parents having been mentally ill that you might have inherited something genetically?”
“Oh, definitely. I’m positive I have something - it’s just undiagnosed.”
“I think you’ve been prone to melancholy, depression, and maybe have obsessive behavior with saving things from the trash, but I’ve never known you to be manic, psychotic, or clinically depressed. For a while I was afraid you would end up a crazy homeless man in the gutter, and I would have no way to find you.”
“Me too. That’s a very real possibility.”
“There’s a line in ‘Cattail Down’ where you mention Mike being concerned for your mental health. Did he ever say anything to you?”
“Oh yeah, he just told me straight out that he thought something was wrong with me and I needed help.”
- All the Clever Words on Pages by Paul Matthew Harrison
Ever since the youthful and passionate fires of “AB-Life”, Aaron Weiss has been defined by restraint and repression. “Catch us for the Foxes” found Aaron Weiss dialing his vocals down to a softer tone and cadence, resembling more of a beat poet than any hardcore vocalist, until the style is repressed entirely in “It’s All Crazy…”, restrained to a minimum in “Ten Stories”, only finally breaking out of its cage in “Pale Horses”. But there is something unhinged in Aaron Weiss now. What comes back is not just the youthful wails of “AB-Life” but something far more primal. “Aaron’s taken to a scream,” is how Rickie Mazotta, the band’s drummer, put it in interviews leading up to the record, and it’s full throated, violent, and entirely discouraged by every vocal trainer on the planet. It’s what makes “9:27a.m., 7/29” such a striking opener, Aaron breaking into the record screaming harder than he has in the entire 16 years the band has been together. This is not what a vocalist does creeping into his 40s, but something has indeed snapped. It’s even more clear in “Another Head for Hydra” where Aaron asks his daughter if she’s found the devil, goes off on an angry tirade against his producer for being materialistic and then takes extreme offense at the moral lessons of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”.
The heavy tracks in this record come less as planned jolts of energy and more as outbursts. They’re not only discordant, but they’re quick, almost every occurrence fizzles out in under three minutes, welcoming Aaron’s softer singing voice into the frame again. That “beat poet” cadence developed in “Catch us for the Foxes” is almost entirely absent now. It almost re-appears in the opening moments of Aaron screaming vocals in “Wendy and Betsy” but the more contained start only encourages a heavier end, Aaron almost breaking into a distorted shriek. Aaron has, in the last four years, expressed ambition that his vocals be used more of an instrument than towards traditional ends. That ambition is finally realized in this album, Aaron’s screamed becoming less and less decipherable until all that is apparent to the listening is a barking aggressive scream, communicating more in its tone and aggression than in what its saying.
“Dear my newlywed wife, you’re not the love of my life, it had already passed me by,” Aaron adds to the ending of this LP’s take on “Winter Solstice” and it’s apparent he’s not talking about any woman. Rather, it’s the lifestyle, the ambitions, the quiet and queer religious strictness that Aaron practiced that kept him away from another woman. This is maybe Aaron’s most scripture heavy album ever, but following the resolution of the death of his father, and in the midst of his continuing struggle with faith, God is often fogged over, hazy and unclear. “This will be a pearl of a time for a virgin birth,” Aaron opines in a rampage on “9:27 a.m.”, only to rebuke the thought as paltry – “and it happens more often than you think!” Or in Julia, where what was once “Him” and “Jesus” in “AB-Life”, then “G-D” in Catch us for the Foxes, then “three letter sound” in “Pale Horses”, now becomes “You-Don’t-Know-Who” in the song’s closing moments. “Dormhouse Sighs” comes to it’s conclusion with the assuredness of a marching beat, and it’s entirely unclear whether the song is an affirmation in Aaron’s belief in God or a criticism of such assuredness, but as the song comes to its chanting menacing conclusion its entirely sure that there’s no longer any light in the God the song is directed towards. “Tortoises All The Way Down” (referencing the hindu myth that the world rests on elephants standing on a tortoise – begging the question, what does the tortoise stand on? Other tortoises of course.) brings that very myth to a crashing end when Aaron proclaims his life as tortoise-less, nothing to stand on at all.
What stands out most in this record are the softer more melodic moments. In a way they’re a respite from this album’s chaotic unhinged side, but in ways, they’re even darker. The guitar tones in many of these songs (Dormhouse Sighs, Flee thou Matadors!, Tortoises all the Way Down, New Wine New Skins) sound like literal scorched earth, loud but harsh in texture. It leads to mewithoutYou’s most striking, vulnerable moments as emotional bombshell after bombshell lands in the second half of the album – while also showcasing the band’s greatest strength – their dynamism. It’s not just from quiet to loud anymore, or from singing to screaming – although the band certainly still embraces the trick. But what’s most crucial to this album’s success is how while dark and heavy in feeling, it bursts into several moments of explosive melody. “Flee, Thou Matadors!” In particular is one of the band’s strongest songs, the second refrain expanding from the first in a way entirely natural but entirely unique before breaking out into an almost two minute instrumental coda. mewithoutYou has always been a band brimming with confidence, creating complex and intriguing sounds out of simple frameworks. Their performance in this record is no different, but it as assertive and assured as the band has ever been. “Julia” perhaps is the best meld of the two worlds, it’s screaming conclusion wrapped in heavy guitars and infectious melody.
“Flee Thou Matadors!” follows “Watermelon Ascot” and “August 6th” in Aaron’s recent tradition of creating songs so cryptic and obtuse that all any reasonable listener can decipher is that the song is about insanity. And again, you’d be right. Getting its premise from Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story “Diaries of a Madman”, which portrays a schizophrenic protagonist who comes to believe he’s the King of Spain, the song pairs that character with the very real Queen Maria I, who was also prone to mental breakdowns – particularly of religious mania. “Ever felt like Noah on an overcase day” Aaron asks –and the floodwaters come pouring in soon after in the song’s companion “Wendy and Betsy”.
Wendy and Betsy is remarkable in its intimacy and menace. “word has it that McKim girl’s not well” Aaron shouts as the song builds to its rapid and ferocious climax referring to his wife, and the song makes no secret about why. “Wendy and Betsy” is a song about domesticity, Wendy and Betsy, apparently, being Aaron’s two cats having a conversation while being simultaneously representation of Aaron’s psyche, a perfect mirror-pair to the king and queen in Flee Thou Matadors! Things are not well. “Wendy, light of my life!” Aaron says to his wife in the beginning of the song, referencing a speech in “The Shining” where Jack Nicholson promises to bash in Wendy’s brains. And certainly that bashing comes, as Aaron’s settling into normalcy results in a rage almost uncontainable, pinning his own religious and personal identity as responsible for her discomfort. The song is preceded by 2,549 miles, which breaks up devastating expressions of loneliness and mental turmoil with Aaron almost begging his wife to leave him. He presents himself as the swine his wife casts her pearls in front of.
As said before, Aaron Weiss has been defined by restraint and repression, and not just in his music, but also when it comes to himself. What comes to be most striking about Aaron’s joyous proclamation that he does not exist in “A Sweater Poorly Knit” is just how thoroughly false that proclamation has come to be. Aaron has spent the last decade trying to unite with God through the denial and forgetting of himself, and [Untitled] is the sound of that framework collapsing, as his life, with a wife and daughter, now with only the ghost of his father, no longer supports the burden that philosophy put on him. “Is this truly how you want to live?” Aaron asks himself in “New Wine, New Skins”. “Managing a narrative?” In [Untitled] Aaron is no longer writing about talking cabbages, or escaped circus animals, or the end of the world. Those narratives, any narrative, are insufficient to address Aaron’s life and in them, he has repressed himself. “I’d like to write a sequel to the state that I am in” Aaron states. As Aaron would do, the line is clever reference to a Belle and Sebastian song, but I’d argue it’s meaning is inherently straightforward. This isn’t just an end to one philosophy. It’s the beginning of another.
“Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” is the most explosive and terrifying song on the album, but in many ways, it’s also the most re-affirming and meaningful. The song itself transforms the stomping steady melodic rhythms of a chain-gang spiritual and the claustrophobic roaring screaming of Aaron into a violent sound collage, the pinnacle representation of Aaron’s mental illness, a song that’s both the band’s most experimental, but also their most succesful. And in it, he does not ask God for help. He asks his brother, the band’s lead guitarist, to come see him – and to bring his kids – instead. “Michael won’t you row your boat ashore? Your little brother can’t paddle anymore…and if either of our wives need a little time, you and I’ll take the kids to the county line.” It’s the most human and enlightened Aaron has possibly ever been. He doesn’t have answers, he’s drowning in doubt and uncertainty, but he has and embraces his family. It’s simple. It’s heartbreaking. And, it’s, in the first time in all of Aaron’s philosophizing, unquestionably true.
“Can you really make all things new? I have reason to believe you do.” Aaron tells God in the epilogue “Break onto the other side Pt. 2” and it’s the first clear expression of faith Aaron has made on an album in over a decade, and it comes not in the affirmation that he himself doesn’t exist, but in the realization that he does. “Someday I’ll find me,” Aaron resolves, bringing the philosophical thread of band’s last five albums to a graceful, mysterious and fitting end. [Untitled] is the record where mewithoutYou becomes MewithoutYou for the first time.
In my review of the e.p. which served as the prologue for this record, I cited and instance of a fan asking Aaron for spiritual answers of which Aaron answered that he had none, but what he did have was tea. Tea has a prominent role in mewithoutYou’s discography, getting a mention in every single record since AB-Life until the tea-less [Untitled]. ([Untitled] has coffee instead). I won’t pretend to know its significance to Aaron, but I like to think the sharing of tea is a ceremony that allows two people to share and empathize with each other’s experiences and thoughts, to connect, a kind of communion. That’s really what makes mewithoutYou such a meaningful band to me. The band is as tight of a unit as you’ll find, the songwriting is as explosive and distinct as any band out there, and their evolution as a band is continuous, exciting and profound. But, what will always be their epicenter is Aaron Weiss, who intimately shares himself and his philosophies in a manner as humble as it is passionate, as volatile as it is still. mewithoutYou, in the end, strives to share a communionship with their listeners. “Beyond Right and Wrong is a field,” Weiss quotes Rumi – one last time – in Julia “I’ll meet you there.”
In [Untitled], more than ever before, he does.