Paul Smith – The Corsair
“Why not be utterly changed into fire?” asks Aaron Weiss, the lead singer of mewithoutYou, on his band’s fourth studio album, it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright.
The question is posed repeatedly at the close to the awesomely epic track, “The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate,” which tells the allegorical fable of a king from a beetle community who sends his insect denizens out to investigate a recent fire in their kingdom—the fire representing the mystery of divine providence.
Each beetle returns to the king burned and defeated, unable to comprehend the enigmatic blaze, prompting the king to investigate the fire himself. He boldly heads directly into the flames, but rather than dying, the king becomes one with the fire—one with that holy mystery.
The lyrical content to this song was inspired from a story told by the Sufi mystic Bawa Muhaiyaddeen in his book “The Divine Luminous Wisdom: That Dispels the Darkness.”
If it is not yet apparent, mewithoutYou’s new musical outing is definitely not your typical album —and neither is it a typical mewithoutYou album. Produced by Brian McTear and Daniel Smith (of Danielson), It’s all crazy… in many ways marks a grand departure from their earlier work, though fans with a careful ear probably assumed the band was slowly headed in this direction.
Gone are the heavily distorted guitars and screaming vocals of albums past in favor of a brashly bizarre freak-folk indie-rock concept album of epic proportions. This change in direction may be off-putting to fans of their former visceral angst-laden style, but for those willing to give the new stuff a chance, their growth as musicians displayed on this album is truly remarkable.
MewithoutYou has at times been labeled a Christian band (though Weiss rejects this pigeonholing), and the fact they put out albums on the religious Tooth & Nail record label does little to dissuade such characterizing.
However, while the band does explore themes of a religious nature, this new album actually has far more references to Sufism (Islamic mysticism) than it does Christianity. In fact, the album gets its title from a parable in another book by Muhaiyaddeen, “The Golden Words of a Sufi Sheikh.”
Many of the themes explored with the lyrics may not be immediately accessible—but, then again, great art rarely is. And one does not necessarily have to agree with Weiss and company to appreciate the artistry exhibited.
But there is no denying that Weiss’ ability to coalesce an innocent children’s-book sensibility into deep esoteric and existential ruminations while still soudning like a campfire sing-along is rather mind-blowing.
Take this line from the song “Fig with a Bellyache” as an example: “The camel in the desert took a ship across the lake/ while the fish in search of water found a fig with a bellyache.” One could spend hours trying to decipher the symbolism in just this one stanza.
So it takes some time to fully digest this meticulous storytelling filled with theological parables and animal fables which sounds like a mix between Aesop, Dr. Seuss and Walt Whitman. And those with the patience will find a lyrical talent rarely matched in music today —though Weiss’ actual vocals may be an acquired taste for some.
Yet, beneath all the profound themes and prolific lyrics lies the music —a roaring mix of folk measures matched with raw multi-instrumental rock that perfectly harmonizes with the lyrical themes.
Many of the songs are structured around an acoustic guitar rhythm which builds to crashing crescendos filled with horn sections, pianos, accordions, violins, flutes, pounding drums and haunting choral chants.
The musical arrangement features a diverse style that seems reminiscent of the horns and lyrical melodies of Neutral Milk Hotel, the playful childlike whimsy of They Might Be Giants, the grandiose choruses of Arcade Fire’s first album, and the warbling, fist-pumping folk-rock epics of Bright Eyes —all while still maintaining an elegance and energy wholly its own.
The end result is an album so powerful, unique and mystifying that it is certainly a contender for album of the year—and just may go down as a modern classic.
So perhaps Weiss should have stopped screaming long ago, because he has learned to speak volumes with restraint.
Ultimately, the band has finally found that alchemical formula where the music and lyrics have become one with that holy mystery—and now with this amazing new album, mewithoutYou has been utterly changed into fire.