In Brief: Don’t let the title fool you. There’s some joyously melodic, and not terribly pretentious, expression of a band’s wild imagination going on here.
I’ve gotta hand it to the Danish band Mew – they know their place. When a band sums up its own music as “pretentious art rock”, one can only assume that this statement is partially tongue-in-cheek, at once a critique of the idea that rock music has to say something huge and profound and all-encompassing or die trying, and a playful jab at the critics who will likely resort to such complaints, as if to say, “We beat you to it, and that isn’t really much of a criticism, so there!” It’s a statement that leads me to believe they’re comfortable with their work, with allowing their quirky brand of progressive dream pop to be what it is and touch who it touches, without the need to make claims about it being all things to all people. They probably figure that their sound is going to be a monkey wrench thrown into the cogs for any listener who has a hard time reconciling art with pop, or reconciling boyish vocals and daydream-inspired lyrics with sprawling, sometimes even intimidating song structures. Mew’s music (oof, that’s awkward to say out loud) is a strange brew indeed. I’m not sure exactly who this is for. But I’ve seen it inspire hyperbole from the folks who seem to get it. And despite being entirely new to the band and even being a bit stymied by how much exaggerated hype I’d heard about their latest album well before it was released, I now have to try to restrain myself from speaking in that same hyperbole. It’s hard. Mew has a habit of sounding transcendent without really putting on any “pretense” that I can detect. It’s simply the word of three dudes whose natural inclinations tend toward the deliciously weird while possessing a keen ear for the bizarrely catchy.
Perhaps it takes a band who jokingly refers to itself as “pretentious” to use an entire poem as their album title. Yeah, I know Fiona Apple had that 90-word monstrosity of an album title 10 or so years ago, but she doesn’t strike me as the tongue-in-cheek type. It’s with an almost childish glee that Mew gives a relatively shorter title to their latest concoction: No More Stories / Are Told Today / I’m Sorry / They Washed Away // No More Stories / The World Is Gray / I’m Tired / Let’s Wash Away. That’s not only pretentious, it’s also pretty high on the “emo” scale. It actually sounds downright depressing, reading the words, but that doesn’t describe the sound of the album AT ALL. They’re simply giving you a hint that you’ve got to throw out the old boundaries of your imagination and start over. Or maybe they’re not saying anything of the sort, and I’m being pretentious. And hyperbolic. See? This is hard.
Perhaps we should back away from meaning for a bit – damned if I know what Jonas Bjerre is blissfully falsetto-ing about half the time, anyway – and just discuss the music. I mentioned the labels, “art”, “pop”, and “progressive”. How does that all fit together? The very definition of “pop” seems to imply simplicity, immediacy, something “catchy” so that you can get it stuck in your head and buy the brand of shoes it’s adevrtising. But Mew seems to have figured out a way to extract the catchy from the commercial and recast it into a series of misshapen, unpredictable songs that often don’t end up sounding anything like how they started out. It’s like forcing a pop song to run through a maze – you can trace the linear thread of how it got from Point A to Point B, but there’s no symmetry, no full circle, not always an obvious hint at which part of the song structure comes next. The term “progressive” is often used with disdain by those who dislike bands that are obsessed with long-winded wankery on each member’s respective instruments, or with jamming unrelated sections of music together in the hopes of creating something suite-like. (You know, like a bad Dream Theater record. Don’t click that link. It goes to a review of a good one.) Mew doesn’t seem to have this “show-off” gene. But they do seem to have an obsession with making each song live outside of the box a little. That’s a good thing. It makes each element of the album unique, its own freakish and yet adorable entity. The fact that this all flows cohesively as a full-length album is nothing short of incredible. It won’t seem to flow at first, due to how the band actually throws a few of their most difficult tracks at you right out of the gate, but absorb the middle and then back up to the beginning, and I think it’ll start to come together for you.
Sonic comparisons are difficult to come by for this band, because I keep wanting to compare them to the usual indie rock suspects, but those comparisons fail. I think of Sigur Rós when they come up with a long, sweeping anthem, but Sigur Rós’s thing is grandeur built out of minimalism, and there’s nothing minimalist about Mew. Everyone in the indie world gets compared to Radiohead at some point, and sure, I can hear a few twisted guitar figures or claustrophobic computerized beats here and there that might be a tip of the hat, but Mew’s version of twisted comes with a more gleeful melodic punch. The Polyphonic Spree isn’t a bad comparison for some of their happier songs, especially given the choirs and supplemental instruments employed in several places. But the Spree isn’t this expansive. And I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how Mew can even exist in the same musical neighborhood as Nine Inch Nails. (Not a single thing they do reminds me of NIN, but apparently the two bands are touring together. Wouldn’t the fans of these two bands hold up their fingers like crucifixes at the sight of one another?)
In any event, generalities are failing me here. Hopefully a run-through of the track listing will help shed some light on things.
1. New Terrain
A little bit of synthetic fuzz, some wisps of backmasked guitar, and the first song comes sliding right in… and it’s all backwards. Well, except for the parts that aren’t backwards. Which just serves to make it more backwards. Seriously, this thing is disorienting, and just about the most confounding way to start off an album. For all you Radiohead fans out there, imagine “Like Spinning Plates” but with a maelstrom of crashing drums, an up-tempo beat, and a poppier melody. I can hear snippets of words that I know are sung in English, and I’ve heard that the backwards stuff is actually a whole other song contained within the song, but even when I reverse this sucker in a WAV editor (how nerdy is that?), I still can’t make heads or tails of it. I’ve grown to enjoy it, since I fell in love with the rest of the album to the point where this track always signals the beginning of an excellent listening experience. But I won’t lie. It’s a tough sell – a risky way to lead off an album.
2. Introducing Palace Players
Almost as risky is this trippy, offbeat little number that sounds like its drums and guitars are constantly fighting each other to regain control of the rhythm. Ironically, this is the lead single, in spite of a non-radio-friendly intro that consists of a minute and a half of this confusing interplay before Jonas Bjerre finally speaks up. Once we’re this far in, the song stubbornly makes its case as a catchy rocker in its own right, bringing together the conflicting sounds of Jonas’s golden voice and the snarled guitars, the rhythm finally maintaining a sense of order after the initial confusion. Out of seeming chaos, order is born, giving context to what seemed at first to be a lack of synchronization on the band’s part. I’m not sure if this is musical genius or just a bit of a fun jam session that took on its own life, but ultimately, the result puts a smile on my face even while it’s putting a furrow on my brow. (And if this isn’t trippy enough for you, check out the video with the strange, floating black cubes that roam the landscape in search of intelligent life.)
The funny thing about Mew is that they have to actually put in some effort to write a simple song. Complexity is their natural tendency. And that’s not a criticism, but it is nice to see that they can do a breezy, easygoing song like this and still make it worthwhile. The beat here is somewhere between disco and the robotic, rubbery fascination pop music went through in the 80’s, with a fluid bassline and synths abounding. While I have my suspicions that something more emotionally complicated lurks beneath the shiny surface of this song, I think Mew’s laid-back mood is perfectly summed up in the chorus: “It is sweet outside/Where it seems magical/And if nothing works/We’ll do nothing.” It is sweet indeed – this turns out to be one of my favorites on the album despite the brief length.
Radio single #2 brings the intensity back up a notch with its little blasts of guitar that open and close the song, completely out of sync with the rhythm of the rest of it. The song feels like it’s constantly sprinting, due to Bo Madsen‘s continuously rolling guitar riff and the noisy squalls that bump up the volume level a bit when the chorus arrives. That chorus might be a bit too precious for its own good (basing the hook of a song around the words “How should I hold this girlfriend?” is a tricky proposition, given this band’s usual penchant for being slightly more enigmatic), and this one also runs a bit short, but one could argue that this is a song that is meant to do its job quickly, stab you in all of the most vulnerable spots, and then get the hell out of Dodge.
5. Intermezzo 1
This interlude is just a short little piano trill, nothing more. I suppose you could consider it a break between the single-heavy “first movement” of the album and more of a dreamy, complex “second movement”. But I didn’t need 15 full seconds of silence after the piano part ends to figure that out.
6. Silas the Magic Car
This song is named after the band’s drummer, Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen, but it’s not a drum-heavy song. It’s actually one of the album’s most relaxed, as a soothing, watery guitar melody unfolds over a chilled-out backbeat with a teeny bit of piano to propel it along. Jonas’s vocals appear to be double-tracked, singing the verses in two parts, an octave apart on the scale and slightly syncopated from one another. It’s a psychedelic sort of an effect, which the children’s choir that joins in for the refrain contributes to even more. Since both SIlas and Bo are mentioned by name here, I can only imagine that this song is a commentary, either from the perspective of Jonas or of former bass player Johan Wohlert, who left the band before this album was made, about life on the road versus a “normal” life at home with a family. Mew’s songs are rarely direct enough that they seem to mean any one thing, but I can tell that the mood seems warm and amicable, and the song is better for it.
7. Cartoons and Macramé Wounds
Mew’s stated goal with this super-sized composition was, according to Wikipedia, to make a song “that supposedly reverses the traditional Mew formula of a quiet buildup into an epic by starting out gigantically before fizzling away into something more minimal.” They sort of accomplished this, but as a true exercise in reversing the formula of a slow-burn ballad that builds up into a big explosion, it doesn’t quite work. However, it’s a gorgeous little oddity, so if they wanted to start with the middle, then go to the quiet buildup normally heard the beginning, and then bring in the grand finale, I can’t complain, because there’s beauty to be found at every turn. The opening segment once again runs the risk of being too cutesy for the band’s own good (“You drew me cartoons, so playful” is repeated several times), but you have to examine the structure more so than the lyrics here, as that phrase gets chopped apart and repeated and interrupted by itself until we get to the “disintegration” in the center of the song. Here Jonas sings in his cutest alien voice: “Put your hand in mine, we will go skating/On the thinnest ice that we can find” over keyboards that twinkle like distant stars, the song devoid of a defined beat but never deviating from its established tempo. Listen closely, and there’s a bit of time signature trickery happening here, which isn’t 100% apparent until the big finish, which practically explodes with the psychedlic colors of 60’s era tour posters, with crashing drum rolls and bits of vocals flying every which way. This is the sort of thing I’d expect from The Flaming Lips, except that I don’t think the Lips could pull off such a solemnly beautiful vocal coda. This track is a perfect example of Mew’s ability to “morph” throughout the duration of the song – there’s repetition and a slow tempo, but it never gets boring over the course of its seven and a half minutes.
8. Hawaii Dream
A faint interlude shows up here, serving as the midway point of the album its the lyrical Rosetta Stone, as Jonas can be heard in the background,repeatedly humming the phrases that make up the album’s title, with bits and pieces from the following song slowly fading in.
Well, it’s about darn time someone wrote a song paying tribute to my favorite state! None of my favorite American artists have gotten around to it yet (Sufjan Stevens is apparently sleeping on the job), so leave it to a band from Denmark to bring together marimbas, toy pianos, and West African percussion in a song that is named after the 50th state and yet seems to have nothing to do with it, lyrically. It’s an amalgamation of euphoric, “beachy” sounds that could invoke a setting of sand and palm trees at any number of tropical locales, I guess. I tend to expect bands from Scandinavian-type countries to be all “cold and frosty”, so this joyous little parade sure is one hell of a wake-up call! Everything is spot-on perfect here, from the rat-tat-tat march of Silas’s drums to the rolling electric guitar runs to the way that the whole thing goes into hyperdrive for the chorus with the sweet wash of “Aaaahs” in unison from everyone in the band… or just a bunch of multi-tracked Jonases… one can never be sure about these things. Jonas seems to miss a lover who has gone away on vacation, but resolved to own up to his mistakes and let her move on to a happier life. He can’t resist asking, “Have you met someone? Have you touched the bottom?” This seems to hint at a depth of intimacy that couldn’t exist in his own relationship with her. Or he’s just getting nosy about how much groping is going on. Again, one can never be sure. (All goofing around aside, this could be a contender for my favorite song of the year 2009. I love it that much.)
The marimbas from “Hawaii” are back for an encore, leading off this fast-paced song in grand style as Silas’s percussion deftly dances around them. It evolves into another solid rocker soon enough, as Jonas runs through a maze of cryptic lyrics about hospitals and clouded retinas and trippy images in the mind’s eye of a woman named “Maria”… this is either an abstract description of a person undergoing some sort of medical treatment that messes with their head, or a bad drug trip. (Hmmm, been to Christiania lately, guys?) Whatevre it’s about, there’s a sweetness to balance the suffering and the feeling of limbo experienced in wondering whether this person will come out of it alright. Jonas pines, “That week you spend in the hospital, I was so scared you’d disappear. Did you know that?” And I barely have time to think, “Awww, that’s touching”, before the song breaks off into a somewhat angry coda of dense, aymmsetric rhythms and shards of electric guitar. That sort of came out of nowhere, and yet they segued from one mood to the other quite convincingly. This is why Mew succeeds where some other “progressive” bands fail.
11. Tricks of the Trade
The synthesized, Casio-handclap backbeat of this song is so self-consciously dorky, you’ve just gotta love it. That Mew can use this as a building block for a song that is intricate, sensitive, and just a little bit haunting is no small feat. There’s a heavy sense of sadness and paranoia as Jonas describes the perils of a girl who seems to be always calling him up with some sort of crisis… it’s all in the way that the minor key melody keeps dipping further and further down at odd intervals. Then the synths and bass get really spaced out during the chorus, before leading into a bridge that contains one of my favorite lyrical snippets on the record: “This is which we couldn’t see/This is which we tried so hard finding/How our creased hearts binding/Pushes you again to never see your friends/To rip apart the lights of those/Whose love deprives you.” I don’t know why, but that strikes me as somewhat profound. It doesn’t hurt that this is where the song reaches its climax, with a cascading piano melody bubbling up from underneath and finishing the song with a surprising floruish of beauty where we were led to expect somber heartache.
12. Intermezzo 2
The final interlude serves as a break between what I like to call the “catchy complexity trio” of the last three songs (which for me is the pinnacle of the album) and the relatively more straightforward closing act. It’s just a simple, glistening, synthesized melody and the clickety-clack of drums ambling off into the distance, and there are faint lyrics from Jonas, but every attempt to look these up has told me that the song is “instrumental”, so I have no idea what he’s saying here.
13. Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy
OK, so remember that comparison I made to The Polyphonic Spree earlier? This is where that comes into play most obviously. The hazy, quiet, synthetic intro gives you absolutely no way to anticipate the apocalyptic burst of sound that suddenly follows. Bells ringing out joyously, exuberant vocals crying out as if they had been lifted from a 60’s musical, a saxophone blurting maiacally as if it were a siren (which is sure to make you think you’re about to be pulled over if you happen to be speeding while listening to this), and then suddenly it melts into a cheery little pop song about what happens when life kicks the crap out of you. And there comes the children’s choir again, and I think you can figure out from the multitude of voices and the goofy, meaning-of-life lyrics why the Spree came to mind. I have to say that it’s the joliest song I’ve ever heard about being beaten and having your limbs severed and then – horros of horrors! – being deceived on top of all that. Man, I hate it when I’m a parapalegic and people don’t even have the nerve to tell me the truth! Despite my poking fun at the hoky lyrics which sort of state the obvious about life being rough, I do find this to be a beautiful song, right down to the fragile coda, in which an octagenarian woman (not kidding!) sings, “Safety net, I regret. I am shaking.” Breaks my heart every time.
Reaching the end of this album feels like arriving at the end of a long, hard, and yet beautiful journey, and as the dirge of drums and synths progresses slowly forward, I can’t help but get this weird “Chariots of Fire” sort of vision in my head of a runner taking an Olpymic Torch down those final few years to its final resting place. The title alludes to the fact that you’ve heard this melody before, and it took me way too darn long to figure out that this was a reprise of “Silas the Magic Car”, but only sort of. That song proclaimed “I want you to be loved” (Or “I want to be loved” or something along those lines), and now Jonas has come full circle with the tender refrain, “Lift your head, don’t forget you are loved”. Slowing things down even further for the final stretch, he sings his most vulnerable words over Bo’s trembling guitar: “Not long for me, for you see/The dreamers have all grown/And I so wanted children of my own.” Those words could drop you off the cliff into a deep well of sadness or fill you with the joy of a dream realized, depending on how you interpret them. There are no more stories, because there is no more need to imagine what lies ahead. One man’s life is coming to an end, and he is either full of regret for the dreams not pursued, or full of gratitude for the ones that were.
I can see that I’ve drifted back into “pretentious gushing” mode as I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into the album. Mew makes it hard to remain objective, and any misgivings I might have about the awkward start that No More Stories gets off to are quickly smashed with a sledgehammer by the time I arrive at the album’s second act. While I recommend taking in the album in its intended order, if you’re a new fan like me who is having trouble making sense of it at first, I’d actually recommend seeing if your reaction differs when you start the album at “Hawaii Dream” and let it wrap back around all the way to “Cartoons and Macramé Wounds”. Do whatever it takes to piece the puzzle together, and I think the madness will all make sense in due time. No matter where you start and end, I hope No More Stories gives you the same sense of musical euphoria that it so often gives me. I can’t wait to explore where this band has been in the past and where they’ll be headed next!
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
New Terrain $1
Introducing Palace Players $1
Intermezzo 1 $0
Silas the Magic Car $1.50
Cartoons and Macramé Wounds $2
Hawaii Dream $.50
Tricks of the Trade $2
Intermezzo 2 $.50
Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy $1.50
Jonas Bjerre: Lead vocals, guitars
Bo Madsen: Guitars
Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.