When mewithoutYou announced that they were streaming their fifth full-length, Ten Stories, it was accompanied with a series of questions, the most glaring of which was "Have you been on the fence about the band since the direction of the last album?" That anyone felt the need to ask is a testament to how polarizing their last effort, It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright really was. Ten Stories is a return to form in many ways, yet it also feels like a step in an entirely different direction, and as such is the most interesting thing the group has laid to tape in more than half a decade.
"February 1878" clues listeners in right away that Ten Stories is a very different record than its predecessor. Its aggressive midtempo attack, peppered with some classic Aaron Weiss shouts harkens back to the days of Catch For Us the Foxes, while retaining the maturity and melodic chops of their later works.
Ten Stories is all over the place stylistically. From the angular yet melodic post-hardcore of "Grist for the Malady Mill" to peaceful sounds of "East Ender's Wives," which comes off like a mostly acoustic cousin to Minus the Bear's "Memphis & 53rd," to the horn-laden, heavily Neutral Milk Hotel-influenced "Bear's Vision of St. Agnes." This song in particular demonstrates that this is still the same band that made It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright, yet the electric instrumentation used here suits the band far better than the folky approach used on that album.
"Cardiff Giant" is perhaps the most accessible song mewithoutYou has penned to date, and the closest thing the band has written to what could conceivably be called a "hit single." It's bright and bouncy, recalling the best of Plans-era Death Cab For Cutie, although its chorus, consisting lyrically of little more than the phrase "I often wonder if I've already died," stands in stark contrast to its poppy tone.
The slightly more commercial bent of "Cardiff Giant" is balanced out later in the album by "Fox's Dream of the Log Flume." Even the guest vocals of Paramore's Hayley Williams cannot dull what is arguably the most intense song the band has penned yet. Weiss is at his lyrical best here; the entire song is so quotable that an excerpt wouldn't do it justice, but it's worth noting that it may be perhaps the first time a Christian band has used the phrase "It's pretty obvious that there's no God" in a song.
Ten Stories is a concept album. According to drummer Rickie Mazzota, "Essentially it's about a circus train that crashes due to an elephant rising up to free all the other animals." However, the songs presented here feel less like parts of a whole than individual compositions. The group's past full-lengths, even the less-than-stellar previous album, have all felt like unified works, begging to be absorbed front to back. Ten Stories is the group's most stylistically diverse offering yet, and as such, feels more like a collection of songs than a single cohesive entity. That being said, the songs presented here may not beg to be played one after another, but they are all great tunes on their own merits.
mewithoutYou have given us some of the best songs of their career on Ten Stories. They've taken some risks and made some interesting stylistic choices. Taken as a whole, it doesn't quite measure up to the greatness of Brother, Sister, but it comes mighty close. It's a record that should satisfy most of their fanbase. Fans of the group's earlier work disillusioned with the direction of the past album will be glad to hear they've gone back to some of what made those albums work, and listeners who enjoyed the more low-key style of their more recent work will be happy to find that the maturity of songwriting they gained is still intact, and perhaps even sharper. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a mewithoutYou record in the past will have at least something to like on Ten Stories.