Ten Stories Analysis
A little over a year ago, mewithoutYou’s fifth studio album, Ten Stories, was released. One thing was immediately apparent: this was not an album that was simply made to be listened to while driving on a spring afternoon with the windows down. But of course, none of their albums really are. Ten Stories, though, is a beast of a different sort. Lyricist Aaron Weiss has always been want to wade out into the river of obscure poetry, religious philosophy, and fable on past albums. The allusions to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five on [A-B]: Life, for example, or writing a song to a porcupine in a tree on Brother, Sister. Their previous album, It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright. boasted the lion’s share of the fairy tale approach to Weiss’ usual philosophical and introspective wordslinging. Here foxes tricked narcissistic crows and beetle kings became one with the Divine in the form of a lone campfire, all with another layer of meaning spread out underneath it all like a second skin.
Which brings us to Ten Stories, an album as ambitious and beautiful as it is bizarre and at times, rather befuddling. The day the album dropped, I sat down with the lyrics in front of me and compiled what became known as my “Ten Stories Glossary”. Never before had so many strange references, literary allusions, and animal symbolism assaulted my ears on a mewithoutYou record. After I had spend a good couple of hours defining to the best of my ability every word or phrase with which I, as the layman, would be unfamiliar, I sat back and thought to myself, “Gee that was swell. A really very helpful exercise.”
But what’s really goin’ on here?
Because, to be honest, I still wasn’t sure. I’m still not. Was Elephant supposed to represent Christ? Why is a rabbit in a relationship with a fortune teller? Is the “I” really such an unintelligible lie? And for God’s sake, why is there a song about someone who is apparently falling for a basket full of eggplants?
I haven’t a clue.
But, I’d like to try and find out. Thus I come to my small project, a year out from the release of Ten Stories. I seek to explore the rich themes present in each of the songs on the album. What is happening in the plot, to these animals and their circus folk jailers? What do these characters and their circumstances represent?
It’s a challenging task to take on, mostly because there aren’t a whole lot of interviews with Aaron Weiss that really strive to pick the brain of such an interesting songwriter. Also there is the problem of the dual, and often triple meanings present in the songs. In “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume”, Bear is speaking to his best friend and fellow traveller, Fox, about a past love and a disastrous night they had at a carnival in New Jersey. On the surface, anyway. But what is this saying about relationships? Or about religion? Or something else? And let’s go further. When Weiss sings, “in the past fourteen years there’s only one girl I’ve kissed” is this merely Bear speaking, or is this a more personal revelation stemming from the broken relationship so predominantly explored on earlier albums? Could it at once be all of these? It probably is.
(I don’t much feel like speculating on an artist’s personal life, so I have attempted to leave out any theorizing as to what inner struggles Weiss might be specifically referencing and instead will focus on what the songs say for themselves.)
I have here attempted to wrestle with my own understanding of this incredible work of art. I am a layman and will in all likelihood be wrong about most of the conclusions I come to. The reason I even make the attempt is that, even a year later, not much has been done to really compile a thought piece on what everything could mean in Ten Stories. This is meant to prompt discussion. Disagree with what I’ve found and tell me about it. Find out something new and add to this, please. I’d be fascinated to read it.
One final note: I owe nearly all of the better conclusions I have come to in this project to my long conversations with my friend and research partner Brian Walton over the last twelve months (and more intensely in the past week in preparation to dig into this).
The mistakes were mine.
With the possible exception of the b-side “Julian the Onion”, the first track on Ten Stories is probably the most straightforward song plot-wise. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some thematic depth to dig into as the song progresses, of course. “February, 1878” drops the listener right into the middle of the action with a clamoring crowd of geographical and railroad terms that are fairly baffling before a Google search or two sheds a bit of light on the subject.
In an unspecified region of Montana, somewhere south of Trout Creek and west of Cedar Lake, a circus train navigates a winding mountain trail on a railroad built by Union Pacific [On a winding mountain trail of the North Pacific Union Rail]. Two problems are immediately apparent: the train is running behind schedule, and a blizzard has hit [the snow arrived on time, the circus train was running late]. The repair track is long behind , and the hooks that link the train cars together are wearing out [rip spot’s past and all the knuckles worn]. The firebox, where the coal is burned to power the steam locomotive is overloading [firebox bursting to the running boards]. The engineer, his heart pounding in his chest, pushes the train faster and faster as it rounds the bend. He holds on to the throttle and leans into the turn as the train almost comes off of the rails [a pounding in his chest, crushing like a cider press, the hogger rode the throttle ‘round the bender like a flank-strapped horse].
An exciting way to begin a fable, no doubt, but we soon move on to a more important area of the ailing circus train: the animal car. It is here that we are introduced to what is arguably the most important character in Ten Stories.
There is much speculation online as to exactly who or what Elephant represents. A safe bet, considering mewithoutYou’s usual subject matter, would be God. More specifically the person or idea of Jesus Christ. Initially I was hesitant to assign a hard line 1:1 ratio of Elephant = Jesus. In a later song, Elephant will display a definite feeling of regret for the way she has lived her life before the events of the story. This seems to indicate she isn’t a completely blameless (or sinless) creature as Christian tradition teaches Christ was. A few things brought me around to the idea that if Elephant isn’t representing Christ, she is representing, at the very least, a Christ-like and almost holy individual.
First is the obvious. As we shall soon see in this song, she sacrifices her own freedom (and, it is to be assumed, her life) in order to grant the animals unlimited freedom. Sacrificing oneself for another is a very central idea to the Christian faith, and it will crop up numerous times on this album.
Second, the song title “Elephant in the Dock” seems to be a direct reference to the C.S. Lewis book, God in the Dock, which we will talk about later. That seems to be a pretty definitive answer if ever there was one.
The third aspect that points to the holiness, if not complete Divinity, of the Elephant character is rather more illusory and requires a bit of digging into past mewithoutYou albums. Here, the animals refer to Elephant as their “mother”. While God is usually referred to as a “He”, the Bible also states in many places that God has feminine qualities. Or, more specifically, maternal ones. Aaron Weiss is no stranger to this aspect of the Divine, and has referenced it numerous times on previous albums. The song “Timothy Hay” is the best example of this because of the very bluntness of the lyrics in which Weiss sings, “Broke the news to Mom: we found a better mom we call G-d, (which she took quite well)”. The motherhood of God is an oft-repeated theme in mewithoutYou’s catalog and Ten Stories seems to be following in that same vein.
My conclusion is that, for all intents and purposes of the fable presented, Mother Elephant does represent God. Now, to return to the story.
The animal car of the train is filled with all manner of creatures, and as the menagerie rounds the bend, Mother Elephant addresses them. “Let’s return now to the dust as dust we are; tonight our bridal fate, the hour’s come to consummate!”
Elephant’s words here are pretty important as they seem to emphasize a certain final decision she has come to that will definitely endanger them all, but may also save them in the end. But before we get to that we have to consider what the animals will be saved from.
In later songs we will learn of the cruelty and “falsehood” of the circus itself, so on the surface it seems the animals mistreatment could be enough of a catalyst to risk everything and escape. As always, there is more depth to plumb in this theme.
Aaron Weiss has stated that the animals are living an “institutionalized” life in the circus. In other words, they have become circus acts, rather than the wild and free beasts they should be. The circus institution, then, could be a stand in for a number of things. The simple answer is a “secular” or God-less lifestyle, but it isn’t really that simple.
Notice the features of the circus train mentioned here. It is on a straight track. It is working furiously toward a goal. When the train derails, the animals are free and the rest of the album has them doing… What exactly? Wandering the countryside. They will meet other characters, most of whom will have vastly differing ideologies and outlooks, and they will struggle with their own long-held assumptions about faith and sacrifice. The subliminal idea presented here seems to be that a lifestyle devoted to attaining fleeting societal and “earthly” goals is an institution that should be wholeheartedly rejected.
Even if to reject it means you will be disgraced and murdered.
And that brings us to Mother Elephant’s rallying cry. They may die, and thus be returned to the dust from which all things sprang, but this would be a noble death. And in death, it seems, there is more hope than even the circus offers. The moment of decision, the sheer act of will required to remove oneself from the institution is here a fate compared to the consummation of a marriage. An act of beauty. Often times, an act that results in the conception of life.
The result of Elephant’s determination to free the animals is quite stunning. She charges into the bars of her cage [and drove her massive body like a truck into the iron bars]. An open top train car loaded down with a cargo of limestone derails first in the wake of the impact [limestone thrown from out the hopper’s back], and the man responsible for fueling the fire is thrown bodily from the engine and against the smokestack [Ash Cat tossed against the diamond stack]. From the front of the train to the back, bolts long frozen in the cold Montana air break free and the animals’ cage spins off of the train car and into the snow [from cradle to caboose, the frozen bolts broke loose, sent that cage spinning like a dreidel off the icy tracks].
The song now switches gears, focusing on the animals escaping the wreckage. The narrator, who seems here almost to be adopting the voice or thoughts of Elephant urges Rabbit to race on into the blizzard before dawn, and to keep running until his heart finds peace somewhere [Run on, Rabbit, run! Before the East sky wakes the sun! Sails set to the dreadful cold, until your anchor-heart takes hold]. Notice that here the emphasis is on setting sail to the wind, which is a freely wandering natural force. This can be immediately compared to the rigid railway of predetermined destination and societal expectation.
A train speeding down the tracks is easily derailed when an Elephant decides to alter its course. The wind, however, can never be tamed.
The narration then turns to Fox and Bear, again urging them to run from the despair of circus life, and let the wind guide them. [Run on, Fox & Bear, from this dismal dream’s despair! Cast thoughts to the open ocean of air, until your thread catch somewhere]. This is the first literary reference we come across and it will certainly not be the last. These lines are adapted from Walt Whitman’s “Noiseless Patient Spider” and a full reading of the short poem is quite helpful for illuminating the extent of what is happening here.
“A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.”
The spider in the poem inspires the author to think of his soul casting a net out into a mysterious world in hope of finding some connection. This solidifies the idea that the journey the animals take will not merely be a physical one, but a spiritual one as well.
A journey of salvation, and of ultimate freedom, for the soul.
The animals hesitate, however, because not everyone has chosen to escape as they have. Elephant remains in her cage, despite the animals calling to her [“Mother, please come along!” they cried, but Elephant remained inside]. Elephant refuses to leave. She believes herself to be too old and weak to make good her getaway. Instead she chooses to accept the fate that awaits her. Her words to the animals are fascinating and must be studied closely: “My tusks are dull, my eyes half-blind, too old to run, too big to hide, and have neither friend nor enemy nor that phantom, ‘self-identity’, nor concern for what ‘they’ll’ do to ‘me’. Now, my children, run free!”
There is a lot to unpack here. First, the idea of Elephant’s sacrifice. She isn’t just deciding to accept fate and die in the cold. No, as she well knows, there is an active danger in being captured by men once again. She is choosing, for now metaphorically, to die rather than risk slowing the other animals down in their flight to freedom. Furthermore, she considers no one her explicit friend and no one her explicit enemy. She has divorced herself from such notions of friends and enemies, which is a rather worldy idea. A circus sort of thing, one might say. With her next words, however, we must again cast our nets further into mewithoutYou’s lyrical past.
The idea of personhood as some sort of an arbitrary illusion runs deep in Aaron Weiss’ lyrics. And it is not merely a denial of self, although it seems to begin there. A common refrain on Brother, Sister is “I do not exist”, as in, “I do not exist, we faithfully insist,” and, “I do not exist, only YOU exist!” The idea is expounded on in many of the songs from It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright!. In “Cattail Down” Weiss writes, “You think you’re you, but you don’t know who you are, you’re not you… You’re Everyone Else!” There is even a song explicitly titled “Goodbye, I!” on the album. In fact, the idea of forgetting oneself seems somewhat toned down in Ten Stories as compared to the previous album, in which that seemed to be the theme on just about every song. It will no doubt crop up many times before we are through, though.
For our purposes here, Elephant seems to have completely denied her “self”. She refers to “self-identity” as a phantom idea, and even seems to put quotes around every pronoun she uses, for herself and others. It is as if the idea of individual identity has been completely emptied from her. She sees herself in everyone, and everyone in herself. Thus she is willing to lay down her life for the animals, and has no ill will toward those that would normally be labeled “enemies”. All of her worry is gone.
The narrator chimes in again, this time to Tiger. Tiger sits still in his cage, also refusing to leave as the authorities approach the scene [But Tiger, why sit still, as the officers climb the hill?]. Once again we are treated to a literary reference. This time it is in phrasing adapted from “The Tyger” by William Blake [What stars cast down their spears cooled your fire with their tears?]. The poem is really quite beautiful:
“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”
In the poem, the author extols the magnificence of such a fierce and elegant animal as the tiger. Weiss seems to have appropriated a couple of different lines and thematic elements from the poem and incorporated it into the section of the song devoted to Tiger. The Narrator asks Tiger, in essence, “Why do you sit still? What cosmic force could have even cooled your fiery spirit in the past?”
Tiger’s response is as sad as it is understandable for someone in his situation. The enchanting song of freedom no longer reaches his ears. His family is gone, long dead or long forgotten in his circus life. Everything he once knew now resides simply in his memory and his heart. What is there for him in freedom? Nothing more, he believes, than what the circus offers [Tiger: “Gone that siren sound, it’s a silence now pours down. Gone my next of kin, and all once without now lives within.”]
Fox and Rabbit call to Tiger, in what appears to be at once a warning and a eulogy. “You sit still on display like a tiger cut from an unmoving shrub, and yet once you blazed bright like fire!” [Topiary Tiger once burned bright!] They tell him to receive their wisdom and leave behind this belief that he has received some special fore-knowledge of what awaits them [Save your tales of gnostic sight and take heed on this (most) auspicious night! Topiary Tiger once burned bright!]. Tiger still refuses, and the song here ends.
Notice first the comparison between Tiger’s choice to remain in his cage and Elephant’s choice to remain in hers. For Elephant it was not only practical because of her ailing body, but it was also a determined choice of self denial. For Tiger, it was utter pessimism and hopelessness that caused him to remain. He has ignored his friends and, essentially, God. All have made the case that he is able bodied and was once a truly amazing creature. Tiger should have every reason in the world to leave his cage. Certainly he wont be apprehended, for he can be agile, swift, and dangerous. It is in part his refusal to see the freedom in front of his face that roots him to the spot. Or, rather, that he defines that same freedom as nothing more than a larger version of the circus. This, in turn, is the very definition of an institutionalized life: to become so lost in the sorrows of the institution that you fail to see anything other than that same institution in the idea of freedom. Tiger has transgressed even further, considering his despair wisdom. Despair in and of itself is not wrong. Being so consumed by your situation that you attribute your despair to some holy wisdom is something else entirely.
That, then, is the ultimate difference between someone like Mother Elephant and someone like Tiger. Elephant chooses death because she has sacrificed self and thus ended her earthly worries. Tiger, however, has become consumed by self and the baggage that comes with it. His sorrows and fears overtake him, and he denies himself a chance at the eternal happiness that is right in front of him because, ironically, he is too sad to accept it.
The circus has won, and Tiger will not escape.
Proceeding to reblog all of these. Sorry they’re not quite in order on You’re Saying the Same Thing.