“Let’s review some recent facts…”
Why?’s Yoni Wolf makes this proposal to open “Sod in the Seed”, the lead single from his latest LP, Mumps, Etc., as well as the title track to the EP that was released in August. “Sod in the Seed” is the only song from Why?’s most recent writing session to appear on both releases, and although it’s not their best track, it still feels like the centerpiece on each album. Wolf and co. have taken so many sharp left turns with each new LP, it’s easy to hear him literally stopping to gather himself and asses his game plan as he deadpans those words to begin a 32-bar verse. So, okay, let’s.
Wolf emerged from the L.A. indie hip-hop label Anticon in 2003 with Oaklandazulasylum, his first LP as Why?, which was just a solo moniker at the time. Why?’s debut was a fractured collection of minimalist hip-hop and a promising display of DIY craftsmanship – so much so, that when Wolf occasionally drifted towards bedroom indie pop ground on that record and 2005’s Elephant Eyelash, it was surprisingly natural.
Wolf’s next big step, 2008’s Alopecia, found him right at the intersection between his hip-hop and jangle pop personas, alternating between and often melding his winding flow with his pinched singing voice. Shortly after that came Eskimo Snow in 2009, featuring ten songs written at the same time as Alopecia’s but in an entirely separate vein, with no rapping whatsoever. Aesthetically brighter and full of hooks, Eskimo transformed Why? yet again into an actual rock band with an actual rock band lineup, and with that, a riveting live act as well.
Along the way, Wolf’s subject matter – graphic, honest to the point of unsettling, and at times morbid and funny simultaneously – hardly wavered. Wolf understands the lengths that listeners will go to “figure out” the artists that capture their intrigue, and his approach has always been to do that work for them, eliminate any mystery up front, and still earn their intrigue in the end. When he confessed “I know saying all this in public should make me feel funny / But you gotta yell something that you’ll never tell nobody”, on Eskimo’s “Into the Shadows of My Embrace”, this was never clearer.
This brings us up to date, and Wolf is still telling us all we should know about him and more than we’d ever want to: “Better bet your bottom dollar/ On the spirit, son, and father/ That I’ll spit and shit and holler,” he vows on “Bitter Thoughts”. Wolf is back to rapping, and his flow is as strong and digressive as ever. The Eskimo Snow song structures are also back too, festooned with harp, piano, bells, and whistles that are as instant and pretty as ever. And with admissions like “The shit I said to high school counselors haunts me” on “Strawberries”, Wolf is over-sharing more than ever.
Which is all to say that whatever side of Wolf you prefer, it’s here – for the first time in his career, that much is a guarantee. Thing is, in sounding like all of Wolf’s past forms, Mumps fails to create a new one, bringing his snaking artistic motion to a temporary stall. If Alopecia was the perfect fit sonically and thematically for Wolf’s verbal diarrhea, then Mumps comes off more like a scattered greatest hits record than an album with a preconceived vision, though I can’t imagine more than a couple of tracks here making any retrospective compilation if one were ever assembled.
Though it sounds messy, Mumps holds itself together with Wolf’s world-weary musings on wellness, which begin immediately on the first chorus of the album from opener “Jonathan’s Hope”: “As ill as I am, I am/ But with all that’s well, I’ll yell/ Good god, what the hell, what the fuck?” Cancer makes an appearance later on, and Wolf comes up with a nifty couplet to close it out in typically disconcerting fashion on “As a Card”: “I’ll hold my own death as a card in the deck/ To be played when there are no other cards left”. That could actually be a more apt metaphor for Why?’s trajectory. Wolf has played quite a few cards at this point, and Mumps, Etc. is his time to take a breather – and another look at his hand.
Essential tracks: “Strawberries”, “Sod in the Seed”, and “Distance”