Celebrating the Superb Lyricism of WHY?, PART III

Yoni Wolf with fans at WHY?’s recent show in Oxford, England.

This review of WHY? lyrics wraps up our three-part series on the band’s excellence in writing and rhyming. 

I’m not going to spend the length of this article deliberating on whether Pitchfork’s arbitrary, if not all together misguided, 2.8 limits the credibility of WHY?’s newest release, Mumps, etc. The album exists because de facto leader Yoni Wolf had something else to say–whether good or bad–and he’s had a lot to say since ’05…

If you had been paying attention over the last seven years, chances are you still might have missed the progression of WHY? as a hip-hop/folk collective. The group, a four-then-three-then-four piece by way of Berkeley, CA is by nature divisive, attempting to fuse a very urban style with a more traditional and pastoral quality. That seems to be the case in point as well–this band exists in a realm of its own, with very little to which to compare it. The band’s lyrics, in whole, are nothing if not complex and deadpan. They are also surreal and absurdist.

The band’s first record as a collective, Elephant Eyelash, starts off with a tip-tap high snare bump and an arpeggiated acoustic guitar riff, with Wolf appropriately warming up with a “Yeah…what…yeah” refrain. Later, even more appropriately, he drops this doozy: “And your eyes are slits and bags of fat / And your eyes are pissholes in the snow.” With no other introduction to this band, you’ll surely glaze over the most startling line that is just before this chorus, as if nestled away from prying eyes: “…and the record label calls you Why?”

With no previous inclination to this style of stream of consciousness and genre smushing, you’re going to ask yourself “why?” as well, as there’s no immediate payoff, like a cathartic gut punchline or a catchy dance thump. Well, the joke’s on you because the music he’s crafting is all id, a blown-out caricature of the semiprecious. On Elephant Eyelash’s follow-up record, Alopecia, he’ll mock your knowledge of the alphabet while debasing your loneliness (“Faking suicide for applause in the food courts of malls”), he’ll channel Geto Boys while telling you that your religion is fake (“Sucking dick for drink tickets / At the free bar at my cousin’s bar mitzvah”) and call you out on your dollar dependence over a cute bass line and synth pulse (“These few presidents frowning in my pocket / Can persuade no God to let me let you off”). All of that is in just the first three tracks.

If his words make you uneasy, then good–that’s the point. There’s no reckoning and no resolution, which this band discontinues on Alopecia’s follow up, a self-proclaimed Amnesiac to their Kid A. Eskimo Snow was recorded during the same sessions as its predecessor, but this band does not want you to think of it as B-sides or a continuation of more of the same. What this collection of songs does quite masterfully is take a left-turn departure from hip-hop. It’s a whole new direction; much more Nick Drake than Aubrey Drake. Much more Flaming Lips than Death Grips.

And this album stands out because the songwriting on Eskimo Snow is direct and cathartic, almost the antithesis of their previous modus operandi. In fact, this album could and should be considered a three-album-long release from the stranglehold on the absurd as noted on Elephant Eyelash and Alopecia (and to a lesser extent on the punkish Oaklandazulasylum, an album almost certainly hip-hop because note the obvious Outkast reference). Take, for example, the middle refrain of the middle track “Into The Shadows Of My Embrace”: “I wish I could feel close to somebody but I don’t feel nothing / Now they say I need to quit doing all this random fff-” He clearly is holding back from saying the word and even the name of the song is softer and has a discreet purpose of release. But it means something, at least to our much-aloof singer, and it therefore should mean something to us, and it does. Take also “Will I get into chase to match my dreams?” from “On A Rose Walk, Insomniac.” This question clearly has an answer, and “questions with answers” is a central thesis to this album.

But on the most recent release Mumps, etc. this band completely misses its own point or maybe there is no point; they have softened to a “point” where being absurd and hip-hop again seems hackneyed and the catharsis is repetitive. It’s a nice and clean listen; clearly this band has experience in sparse and tight production. But it’s inoffensive and that is the worst adjective you can use to describe music of WHY?’s kind. (It’s not quite as bad as describing an adjective as “the worst.”) You get the point: “Tight-limbed in white English as my one and trite business,” he exclaims, proudly even, on “White English.” It’s not even reflexive or explanatory; he’s clearly trying too hard to prove a point. It’s certainly very hip-hop, but it’s more Chamillionaire than it is Nas.

As for Pitchfork, which can proudly display its Romney flags, a 2.8 is a rating clearly proving some self-important point, as it did with a 0.0 (!) for The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka or simply a chimpanzee urinating into its own mouth for Jet’s Shine OnPitchfork has crafted a brand of what consistently appears to be arbitrary hatespeak, and it’s disingenuous. If this publication had any intention of pushing this album to obscurity, the review would have been a nonchalant 5.6 and left to rot. Instead, this review’s author, the Simon Cowell of Pitchfork, Mr. Ian Cohen, clearly wants you to listen to this music, if not for you to only to agree and deride it with him. He’s not wrong, as Mumps, etc. is just a bad album compared what else we’ve seen from the band. But whether it’s a misstep or the end of this band’s credibility, I have not bought the Kool Aid, sirs and madams. And on that note, I leave you with the following:

“I’m fucking cold like a DQ blizzard / You act like a slut but you’re really a freezer.” – WHY? – “Yo Yo Bye Bye” from Elephant Eyelash

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