In Brief: No More Stories… is still Mew’s best work, but Kites, with all of its misshapen idiosyncracies, continues to haunt me in fascinating ways.
Since I ended up reminiscing about a lot of my favorite Mew songs last week when I was reviewing Jonas Bjerre‘s solo foray into film scoring, I figured that it was high time for me to review another Mew album. I already covered No More Stories…, their third album (out of the major-label portion of their discography, anyway), back in 2009 when it was brand-spankin’ new and I was also new to the band. It didn’t take long for me to go back in time and discover their uneven but pleasant mainstream debut Frengers, but the album that really captivated me from their old days as a four-piece was one that kept up the tradition of “difficult sophomore albums”. I’m talking about the record which seems to be going for some sort of imaginary Guinness World Record for “Most Emo Titles on a Single Commercial Release”, 2005’s And the Glass Handed Kites. (And possibly “Most Emo Album Cover” as well. I mean, just look at that thing, with all of the band members’ faces shattering and blending into each other. It’s so hilariously horrific that it has to be self-parody. Right?)
Now these guys were no strangers to moody, progressive-leaning indie rock tracks that were as sad as they were beautiful before, but this disc really upped the ante on pretty much every aspect of their sound. The guitars were more angular and sometimes dissonant, occasionally seeming at odds with Bjerre’s chirpy, don’t-hurt-me-I’m-still-a-little-kid-inside vocals. The overall tone of the songs got noticeably murkier, though the album wasn’t without its runaway pop hits (which were unsurprisingly the the only representation that the album got on the band’s best-of compilation, Eggs Are Funny). Most of all, the whole thing is just far more ambitious. They set out to make an album that played as one continuous suite, with individual songs that each had their own character, but intentionally blurring the boundaries between the end of one and the beginning of the next. I simultaneously admire this aspect of Kites and find it frustrating. I’m a guy who easily falls in love with an album when an artist demonstrates that they’ve put some thought into its continuity and didn’t just slap a bunch of songs on there in random order that had little to do with one another. But I also enjoy picking the cream of the crop from the album’s I’m listening to and putting them on mixes for myself and others, which can be difficult to do when they’re all grafted together like this. At times the entire concept feels a bit forced, as if there was a natural break between one movement and the next, but they attempted to bridge the gap with some sort of a segue that was quite obviously there to patch a hole. When they pull off a good transition, it’s incredibly reasrding for me on a musical level. When they don’t, I still kind of have to admire their sheer audacity for trying something like that relatively early in their career.
Lyrically, Kites seems to be fully aware of its own misshapen awkwardness. The lyrics – where they’re meant to be about anything decipherable, at least – seem to be all about misfits longing for acceptance and fearing abandonment. Introverts and loners, and possibly geeks who are used to defending their unpopular choices of lifestyle and entertainment, will likely find a lot more to relate to than party animals looking to have a rocking good time. Even at its most aggressive, Kites isn’t an angry album – it’s an incredibly claustrophobic one with a few brief spots of hope where you feel like the protagonist might be making a genuine connection with the outside world. It doesn’t end the story on one of those hopeful interludes, either – in fact, the last two songs, where the band seems to abandon the “single long song” concept altogether and just hammer out a pair of the most devastating ballads they’ve ever written, are quite possibly some of the most depressing music you’ll ever hear. As someone who’s both been down that dark road of depression a few times and who has watched people close to him get trapped in the cycle, I find it relatable and even a bit of a relief when I realize how strongly these songs resonate. But I can tell it won’t be for everyone. If you like your quirky indie rock bands to strike more of an even balance between the dark and brooding stuff and the upbeat and cheerful stuff, Frengers and especially the vibrant, colorful No More Stories… are where you should start, because both of those albums have a fair amount of comfort and encouragement and, dare I say it, cuteness to balance out the downers. Kites is for those who don’t mind taking a trip deep down the rabbit hole. Even though it’s a bumpy road and a few of its flaws hold it back from competing with Stories for the top slot in their short discography, I find myself coming back to this one an awful lot, because if Mew songs could be my friends, I’d want to put an arm around a number of these songs and say, “It’s OK, man. You’re not alone.” (Don’t worry; I actually do have real, human friends that I get to do this with. I’m just saying, if songs were people… aw, never mind, you know what I mean.)
1. Circuitry of the Wolf
Man, and I thought No More Stories… opened with a rather challenging track. The half-backwards blur of “New Terrain” was definitely a strange way to get acquainted with Mew, but just imagine if the first notes I heard from the band were the harsh electronic explosions and the veritable temper tantrum of dark, slamming guitar chords in this bizarre instrumental track. It’s quite atypical for Mew, and that’s probably exactly why they chose to start this album with it – just to signal that all bets are off. Once the drums stop stumbling about and a predictable rhythm settles in, this nerve-wracking composition actually starts to become quite catchy, eventually cascading into the sort of
2. Chinaberry Tree
soothing, stadium-sized indie rock we’ve come to expect from the band. The piano and synthesizers become more noticeable here as Jonas Bjerre chimes in with lyrics that are equal parts emo and Dr. Seuss: “In parallel sea, what would I be?/My first love said to me, ‘Tears out for the world to see.’/I would not be, I did not see the chinaberry tree/Tears out, it would feel so/Heavenly, heavenly, heavenly.” I’m not sure if could call this piece a “song” in its own right, since it would seem to end prematurely without “Wolf” there to serve as its boisterous intro. It’s got a good mixture of breezy indie-pop goodness and progressive otherworldliness going for it, and somehow these characteristics don’t conflict even as the rhythm changes and the song intentionally avoids anything resembling a chorus. It sort of backs off on the intensity more and more as the song progresses, eventually winding up as nothing but wispy synthesizers, which beautifully cross
3. Why Are You Looking Grave?
fades into another rocker that jolts you out of your stupor with its sudden, intense, rattling rhythm. The drums and bass lock together beautifully in this one, creating a metallic structure that the song seems to constantly bounce off of. For Jonas, it’s an exercise in vocal contrasts, as the faux-childlike innocence of his falsetto clashes strangely with the weather-beaten vocals of Dinosuar Jr.‘s J. Mascis. I have no idea how anyone could have ever conceived that such a strange duet would work. But against all odds, the two of them seem to cover both ends of the spectrum between joy and cynicism (even if the lyrics tend toward the joyless side of things), and this is mirrored by the music as the unrelenting rhythm finally gives way to a lovely piano coda, in which the drums gradually grow louder and louder until-
4. Fox Cub
That was weird. A bit of an abrupt transition takes place here, leading into a little mini-song that starts off still and tranquil with Jonas singing in his lower register and the guitar also exploring its lowest pitches. The drums slowly sneak in as he completes his little vignette about a young child who was made to cry by the cruelty of others, finishing it off rather bitterly as he sighs, “Don’t make fun, because we don’t.” Then suddenly the drums speed up as if to match the pace of
the claustrophobic but irresistibly up-tempo track that follows. This track begins a trilogy of sorts that probably contains the biggest concentration of radio-friendly tracks anywhere on the album. (It might be the finest trio of songs in the entire Mew catalogue, though personally I’m partial to “Hawaii”/”Vaccine”/”Tricks of the Trade” in the back half of Stories.) Achieving a soaring, arena-sized chorus is no small feat when you’re aiming at nothing less than the sum of a man’s worst fears – the rattling drums and laser-like synths seem to depict a battle between Jonas and his demons, as his mood swings wildly back and forth between black waves of terror and moments of unexpected relief and joy (“We will not die, our days are multiplied and I’m happy again.”) Most of the lyrics seem to be stream of consciousness rather than a continuous narrative, but that sort of fits the fragmented, manic mood of the entire album. The guitar and synth get some nice interludes in this song, though the outro seems to wander a bit as if it’s not quite sure what chord to land on until
the drums kick in with an even catchier beat and suddenly we’re smack in the middle of one of Mew’s best-loved songs. I don’t quite want to say that the beat is funky here, but that repeating guitar figure and bumping bass line are pretty hard to resist. What’s funny is that the vocals and guitars seem to slip off the pattern a few times in the verses, as if to try to throw off the drums and bass, but they stick to their guns. Here Jonas seems to be shaken to his core by an encounter with an unusual woman who leaves a lasting impression (at least I’m assuming that “Agarina”, who he mentions in the pre-chorus, is a woman’s name over in their neck of the woods). He’s seen her flaws and yet he’s smitten. it’s pretty simple stuff and yet the way he describes it is definitely unique to him… “You’re a rocket through me” is such a great, succinct way to describe the feeling of being blown away and perhaps even a bit intimidated by someone you find attractive. It must have taken some clever editing to make this one work as a single since the last note of it
7. The Zookeeper’s Boy
is the first note of an edgy, guitar-heavy little jam session that gives no warning about the song that follows it. And oh, what a gorgeous little song it is! This is the highlight of the album for me, and quite possibly its only unflinchlingly happy moment. it’s the one song I’d recommend to people who had never heard of Mew in a heartbeat even if I was certain they’d probably never get into most of the band’s stuff. It’s just so irresistibly cute, with its boyish, hopeful chorus that rings out like a shooting star in the night sky: “Are you, my lady are you?” You have to hear how he sings it and his the background vocals chime in behind him to grasp what makes this song such a gem. The verses are more laid-back, offering inexplicable metaphors as Jonas stumbles to find the words to express his admiration for this shy animal lover: “You’re tall just like a giraffe/You have to climb to find its head/But if there’s a glitch, you’re an ostrich/You’ve got your head in the sand.” That makes no sense whatsoever, but it makes me smile. There are so many little bits of lyrics overlapping this one that you’ll probably never catch everything they have to say here, despite getting the song endlessly stuck in your head. This is pure power pop taken to the next level and then some.
8. A Dark Design
Even though a lonesome organ forms a faint bridge between “The Zookeeper’s Boy” and this track, the unrelenting rhythm of the past few songs comes to quite a definitive stop to make way for the fugue-like beginning of this odd, misshapen song, so it feels like an intermission of sorts to remind us we’re halfway through the album. For me this is the point where the bizarre charm of Kites starts to slowly wear off and the songs just feel like they’re stumbling about in the dark for a while. This one in particular seems to have trouble making up its mind regarding the rhythm and pace that it wants to maintain, which makes it a bit hard to follow. The drums and bass provide a consistent backbeat, but the vocals, guitars, and keyboards seem to have a very loose concept of where one measure ends and the next begins. It’s quite the technical accomplishment, that everyone can keep up and know when to change chords or from verse to chorus and back. But just when it finally seems to be peaking through the clouds with an outpouring of huge booming drums and syntheisers, it
9. Saviours of Jazz Ballet (Fear Me, December)
changes to the next track, which is one of the album’s most confusing compositions for two reasons. One, its subtitle “Fear Me, December” isn’t even contained in the song – it comes from the lyrics of “Apocalypso”. (Which I suppose adds some weight to the concept that the entire album is just one continuous song.) Two, it seems to back off on its climaxes prematurely. The big crescendo that opened it backs off for a meek verse within thirty seconds, and after that stumbles around with more of the same rhythmic difficulty that plagued “A Dark Design”, they come back around for another big outpouring of emotion, which I guess is the second chorus? Just when they seem to be getting some mileage out of the “mundane made awesome” notion that they’re some sort of task force meant to safeguard such a misunderstood art form as jazz ballet (which this song thankfully doesn’t seem to resemble stylistically), it all disappears in a cloud of synth dust.
And then there’s a slow, solemn vocal interlude, which is one of the most arresting moments on the album as it gives way to some cosmic synth chords that sound like the soundtrack to a 1980s documentary about the space program or something. Interesting stuff, but you guys came to a complete dead stop and it just feels wrong that these two completely different musical ideas are part of the same
10. An Envoy to the Open Fields
track when it would have made a whole lot more sense to just let the vocal intro lead off track 10. The breaks between tracks have become ridiculously arbitrary at this point. Here the band engages in yet another exercise where they try to throw off the listener’s sense of rhythm, though it’s a bit more controlled and thus easier to recognize the pattern here – the little stabs of guitar keep in time with the drums when they skip a beat and end up emphasizing the opposite eighth notes from the ones emphasized in the previous phrase. I think the rhythm is 15/8 or something like that. Not that it doesn’t change to 4/4 and a few other things I can’t quite discern at different points during the song. J. Mascis comes back for an encore performance, though his contribution here is limited to a few interjections that show up in the middle of each verse. It’s not as striking of a collaboration as “Why Are You Looking Grave?”, but it’s probably the strongest track that the back half of this album has offered up thus far.
11. Small Ambulance
A speedy drum beat picks up, along with an insistently one-note guitar riff (to be fair, it does change chords here and there), and even a bit of cowbell. This sounds like a fun little groove that the band might have cooked up while goofing off in the studio, possibly to keep that feeling of continuity and spontaneity between the songs. Though the rhythm is notably different from both of the songs that surround it, so I guess this is one point where I actually get to both start and finish a paragraph normally.
12. The Seething Rain Weeps For You (Uda Pruda)
Wow. Now that’s an emo song title if I’ve ever seen one! The complex, speedy rhythm of this one takes off running so quickly that I can’t quite keep up with it. There’s at least some consistency in the basic pattern of triplets that the drums follow, so whatever obstacle course the rest of the band is running, I at least have this as an anchor. It’s definitely not the sort of mood I’d expect for a song about a rainy day – the melody has a definite lift to it that serves to perk up the mood one last time before the big, sad finale. The lyrics read like the thoughts of a man making a last ditch effort to cheer himself up – he’s remembering better days when the weather was warmer and kinder, but he can’t quite seem to talk himself out of the stifling depression brought on by the dark clouds that currently surround him.
There’s a definite break in the music where this song ends and gives way to a minute or so of pure ambient tones that also fade into silence before the next track. At this point I’d say the “continuous song” aspect of the album has been completely abandoned. And there should probably be a sign advising all ye who enter here to abandon all hope, because things are about to get unapologetically dark, y’all.
13. White Lips Kissed
The final two tracks are both on the slow side, and both the album’s longest by far. The first of the two feels like it could serve as the album’s finale entirely on its own, since it develops so beautifully from a tranquil piano ballad to a big, glamorous, tear-jerking production. Just listen when that chorus kicks in… it’s pure magic. The mood that this song sets is like the sort of feeling you’d get when you’ve finally managed to grab hold of something you’ve wanted all your life… and then it slips away from you. There’s a definite sense of loss to the lyrics and to the tear-stained melody, as if a relationship or possibly even’s someone life had been cut short before the protagonist could get some sort of closure out of the situation. Jonas sounds like the hurt little boy more here than ever – especially when the drums echo in the background of the second verse with this funereal sort of march, and his high-pitched voice sounds like it’s echoing up out of some deep pit that he’s found himself trapped in. The main synth hook of the song, and the wash of background vocals and dissonant horns that gradually join it as the song reaches its graceful climax, all come together like empathetic angels trying to calm his fears. Eventually all that’s left is the echoing piano… then a guitar line that slowly, sadly sinks down to its final resolution, and then… about thirty seconds of
14. Louise Louisa
The final track plays as a sort of coda, almost intentionally divorced from the rest of the album that preceded it. Here begins the long trudge home after the funeral, opening with nothing but slow, downtrodden drums and subtle bass, and they might get whipped up into a maelstrom of emotion for a “refrain” of sorts, but this song has no real chorus to speak of. It’s too busy slowly falling apart as this unfortunate sad sack voiced by Jonas grapples with the notion of someone he loved dearly being lost and gone forever. As with most of the album, this song is more about the fragments of thoughts that occur to him than any sort of linear narrative that makes sense of things. A lot of the emotion is communicated by the instruments, especially in the second segment of the song, where the guitars and keyboards seem to switch roles with the rhythm section as they provide a rhythmic and melodic backbone while the drums just go completely manic, avoiding rhythm almost completely as they get that one last concentrated gasp of anger out of their system, as if depicting the sound of a condemned building crashing down around the listener. Then all falls quiet but the subdued synth chords that rise from the ashes, as Jonas sings with resignation: “Dig out yourself from rubble/Removing all your skin/And don’t ever think of trouble/The darkness that has been.” This brief segment leads into the quietest and most devastating part of the song (and the entire album), as everything disappears except for Jonas’s lonesome voice, almost cracking at times from the sheer weight of the tragedy, and he repeats a despairing lyric three times that may well haunt me forever: “I’m in a car/I don’t know where we are headed for/Stay with me/Don’t want to be alone.”
Why does this album, and those two last songs in particular, resonate with me so strongly? I can imagine it might be a bit much for some listeners, but when the album finishes and I wonder how I could find so much beauty in something so sad, there’s this not-quite-tangible notion that maybe I’m not a completely cold and cynical jerk, that maybe I can still feel some sort of empathy after all. And that’s the funny thing about Mew – they’re so abstract and experimental and yet at the same time they’re so instantly relateable and memorable. And rather than being bummed out when that lonesome voice finally fades away, I’m actually touched, even strangely encouraged. That little boy doesn’t have to be alone. I’m not alone. You’re not alone. I promise.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Circuitry of the Wolf $1
Chinaberry Tree $1
Why Are You Looking Grave? $1.25
Fox Cub $0
The Zookeeper’s Boy $2
A Dark Design $.50
Saviours of Jazz Ballet (Fear Me, December) $.75
An Envoy to the Open Fields $.75
Small Ambulance $.50
The Seething Rain Weeps For You (Uda Pruda) $1.25
White Lips Kissed $2
Louise Louisa $2
Jonas Bjerre: Lead vocals, guitars
Bo Madsen: Guitars
Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen: Drums
Johan Wohlert: Bass (left in 2006)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.