A stunning piece of art.
Label: Run For Cover (US) / Big Scary Monsters (UK)
Released: 16th June 2015 (US) / July 24th 2015 (UK)
Over a fifteen year career, Philadelphia’s mewithoutYou have carved a legacy that can rightfully be referred to as legendary. While they have never been afforded the same levels of hype as those they’ve so directly influenced, their genre-spanning output has been delivered with consistent quality up to and including this record. Now on their sixth full-length, Pale Horses, they manage to compound all the folk-leanings of their mid-career efforts with the heavier intensity of their earliest releases which, with Will Yip contributing arguably the most ambitious production of his prolific career so far, amounts to their greatest and most complete record yet.
Where 2012’s Ten Stories followed a pretty strict concept-arc, Pale Horses instead flourishes with the freedom of a more loosely linked narrative, connected by an apocalyptic theme that sees reference to religious doomsday prophecies, criticism of present-day hypocrisies and exploration of the very concepts of life and death along the way.
Loose though the connection may be, this is still a record best consumed in full. Littered with Arrested Development-level strokes of self-referential genius – for example, the lyric “Comforted by sequences of sounds we knew” from the opening title track is sung in a melody that finds itself subtly repeated and worked around throughout the album, culminating in a concluding reference on album-closer, ‘Rainbow Signs’: “Clouded rearrangements of sounds we knew” – Pale Horses is almost impossibly clever, rewarding repeat listens the way that very few albums can.
Never overly reliant on intelligence alone however, mewithoutYou back up the grandiose with some of the grittiest performances they’ve delivered in the last decade. Interspersed with tumultuous crescendos worthy of the armageddon they soundtrack, the instrumentation serves its purpose and then some. Not a single note feels like filler, with dark undertones creating a looming calm-before-the-storm atmosphere during quieter sections and verses that manage to maintain and build on that suspense. Almost orchestral in its nature, there’s always something huge on the way, whether in the form of the chaotic latter half of ‘Mexican War Streets’ or uniquely standout moments like the erratic staggering of ‘Blue Hen’, the payoff never fails to satisfy.
Aaron Weiss’ vocal further builds on this complexity, fittingly shifting between lullaby and diatribe with near-frightening ease as he navigates prophetic foreboding on ‘Red Cow’, frenetic accounts of war on ‘Watermelon Ascot’, and even offering a deranged, gleeful take on the destruction before him during the aforementioned album-highlight ‘Mexican War Streets’. Despite taking cues from the likes of Interpol with some of the vocal effects used and the bizarrely abstract storytelling of Neutral Milk Hotel, Weiss never strays too far from his own unmistakable style – something that serves to strengthen Pale Horses across the board and ensures that it retains its sense of identity.
How many bands can claim to have produced their finest work fifteen years down the line? Surely the creative spark should’ve died by now. Surely there should be nothing left for Weiss to sing about. Surely in 2015 mwY should be little more than a nostalgia act, wheeled out by festivals every few years to play one of their earlier albums in full. Instead, they’ve bucked all trends, exceeded the weightiest of expectations and written a record that would be worthy of such exalted treatment in 2025. A stunning piece of art. Ryan De Freitas