“When I got better from the mumps, yes, my swollen nut and neck shrunk but, though subtle I can smell distinctly, some sick and swollen stink still to this day sticks with me.” These opening lines to Mumps, Etc. do a pretty good job of distilling the attitude that has defined Yoni Wolf through his career as one man-cum-full band Why? While the actual case of mumps may have come later, his unshakeable self-hatred – often exhibited in visceral, sickly, odorous imagery – has been around and documented since at least the early 2000s. And, to conveniently ignore any potential (probable) negative impact it had on his personal life, it was the chugging malignant heart of his music. He made a damn impressive run of coming up with new ways to express it in vulgarly poetic raps wrapped in increasingly pretty instrumentation, peaking with Alopecia. But while the band is as tight as ever here, and it may open with that line, you get the feeling Yoni might actually feel better about himself than he has in a long time. The music, sadly, suffers for it.
Without that anchor of genuine bitterness, Yoni appears to be quietly scrambling for something to replace it, or a way to replicate it. Perhaps because it’s so unpleasant, the task of recreating it is more or less sisyphean. First off, he’s rapping way more than he has in a long time. I have no problem with his raps (especially back in the cloudDEAD days) but it’s such a hard right from the arc building from Elephant Eyelash to Eskimo Snow – an increasingly weird journey into genre experimentalism – that it almost forces you to imagine the album you thought, and wished, they would make next. Songs quickly begin to sound like worse versions of other Why? songs (“Waterlines” in particular mimics “Good Friday”, and the palpable difference in legitimate griminess between those two tracks is jarring). Yoni’s voice, too, is just off. He’s proven that he knows how to use his limited instrument perfectly, but it’s just a shade too whiny, too melismatic, or too disengaged here to make the kind of impact it has in the past (compare “Strawberries” to the harmonies on “January Twenty Something” then get back to me).
It’s not all bad however. “Sod In The Seed” has grown on me, if not lyrically then in the simple pleasure of its “Hey Ya” biting bounce, and there are several moments where Yoni taps back into that tightrope walk of darkness, like “Kevin’s Cancer” which, in what I imagine is not a coincidence, is not actually about him. Penultimate track “Paper Hearts” also works as a kind of long-form gallows humor joke, where Yoni rips apart an ex girlfriend with surprising ferocity before the orchestral coda reveals it’s his pathetic defense mechanism in face of getting dumped. But, in the end, it’s a lesser Why? album. Bummer for us. Not for Yoni.