A few more songs/ A few more lines/ But is this the sound of a gradual decline?
by Jericho Cerrona
It had to happen some time. There have been inklings, murmurs, and half-whispered inclinations of a time when Philadelphia five-piece Mewithoutyou would run into the inevitable law of diminishing returns. If Pale Horses, the band's sixth full-length, is the realization of that law, then it comes in the form of the standard Mewithoutyou signifiers; soft-loud dynamics, jangly guitar chords, post-hardcore/ art rock song structures, and of course, frontman Aaron Weiss' unique vocal delivery. Truthfully, Pale Horses represents a kind of sonic summary of the group's rather extraordinary run since releasing their aggressively ragged debut A-B Life in 2002. Breaking free of the limited hardcore roots on a record like 2006's Brother, Sister clearly paved the way for 2009's left turn It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright!, which saw them embracing freak-folk stylings and mini-narratives about beetle kings and mischievous foxes. 2012's Ten Stories followed; an Aesop's Fables-esque concept album about misplaced circus animals thrust into an unknown landscape, but truthfully, the band's crowning jewel remains sophomore effort Catch For Us The Foxes; a beautiful, emotionally devastating collection of Weiss' ruminations concerning faith and loneliness which reached moments of auditory transcendence.
The band, (which also includes guitarist Michael Weiss, drummer Rickie Mazzotta, bassist Greg Jehanian, and guitarist/vocalist Brandon Beaver), have always dabbled in a certain push-and-pull quality; from light to darkness, pummeling guitar distortion to lightly strummed acoustics, religious cosmology to pagan concerns. However, in the past Weiss' lyrics have dipped into self-confessional diatribes and autobiographical pain, but in more recent times, he's fashioned himself as poet of anthropomorphisms; charting the inner lives of animals, plants, and mythical beings. Taking the form of a children's storybook, something like Ten Stories was often difficult to wrap one's head around; there was a remove, a purposeful shift away from internal literalization in order to illustrate complex emotions and themes through parable and analogy. With Pale Horses, Mewithoutyou have stripped away much of the eccentricity of their past two albums in favor of something more primal and instinctive, relying on cryptic lyrical content, echo-chambered guitar work, and percussive melodies. In terms of lyrics, Weiss is known for an all-inclusive sourced spirituality; culled Bible verses, messages from the Quran, lines from eastern poet Rumi, and ruminations from Sufi mystic Bawa Muchaivaddeen have all made the rounds. However, on Pale Horses, Weiss relies not only on passages from the Book of Revelations, but also Muslim and Jewish traditions, not to mention the writing of James Joyce.
This last influence is particularly apt in the way Weiss creates literary stories wrapped inside smaller stories that often create musical contradictions. The way he shapes ironic metaphors and clever turns of phrase around groove-oriented, shape-shifting songs is truly something special, and his specific gifts are all over Pale Horse. Still, there's a lack of boldness here; a risk-adverse tactic employed throughout the record that speaks to both the band's age as well as their place in the current musical landscape. From the concussive "Watermelon Ascot", complete with sing-shout vocals, coiling drum patterns, and syncopated arpeggios, and the propulsive "D-Minor", a reworking of the song C-Minor from Brother, Sister; it's clear that Mewithoutyou are giving the fans exactly what they want. The guitar lines are dark and distorted, often with shoegazey effects. The drums are airy during the quiet intros and hard-hitting during the explosive outros. Weiss moves from spoken word-style pontificating to pulpit ranting. It's everything Mewithoutyou fanatics have come to expect, and yet, perhaps because of muddy production courtesy of Will Yip (Keane, Circa Survive), Pale Horses comes off somewhat unmemorable even after multiple listens. It never quite reaches the orgasmic grandeur of Catch For Us The Foxes or the stripped-down novelty of It's All Crazy! Instead, it feels like a continuation of Ten Stories mixed in with the indie rock/ post-hardcore template established during the Brother, Sister era.
It may seem reductive to compare Pale Horses with past output, but when a band is so idiosyncratic and their sound so specific, it makes separating their back catalog all the more essential. This is an album that often loses it's most powerful asset--i.e. Weiss' words--under the dissonant sounds of atmospheric production. The interweaving guitar lines, thumping bass, and pummeling drums are often moved up so high in the mix that Weiss feels like he's fighting against a tide of noise. Often employing what sounds like a busted mic or shouting inside a tin can, Weiss' rantings are often just out of reach, which ultimately may be the point, but it makes listener identification all the more problematic. Still, his undeniable lyrical creativity often breaks through the dissonance. On the opening title track, Weiss coos A few more songs, a few more lines/ I thought I'd left that all behind, setting the stage for a melancholy set of songs concentrating on doubt and misery in which religion may or may not prove beneficial. On "Watermelon Ascot", anthropomorphized cows debate existential matters before turing to a divine creator for help, and there's a great moment where Weiss, who has spoken of celibacy and the monastic life in the past, funnels his recent marriage into the lines a borrowed fern with a cigarette burn and a pawn shop ring in her hand/ At the Idaho courts to affirm our divorce before the marriage began. In these instances, seemingly contradictory elements are held together at once, representing the best aspects of Mewithoutyou as a band, but this sense of walking an artful tight rope are few and far between here. It's almost as if Weiss has painted grim apocalyptic lyrical imagery with noble concessions toward enlightenment without crafting memorable stand-alone tunes to support them.
Pale Horses may be seen as a huge leap forward, a distillation of an entire career, or a safe escape into familiar sonic trappings. Wherever one falls on the spectrum, there's little denying the band's commitment to making music exactly the way they want to irrespective of commercial success or critical consensus. The disappointment comes less from a lack of artistic integrity, and more from the realization that a band once held up as forward-thinking purveyors of genre-skewing brilliance have become comfortable in their own skin. And being comfortable, despite the assumption that aging breeds maturity, isn't always the most instructive way of crafting music that drifts dangerously close to falling apart at the seams in the most emotionally resonant ways possible.