B Michael Payne keeps an eye out for gypsies.
George Lucas ruined everything great about my childhood. Now substitute “Yoni Wolf” for “George Lucas” and “confused young adulthood” for “childhood.” I know, I know – we all grow up, see The Dark Knight and feel vaguely disappointed when we agree with the re-heated idea of our heroes either dying or becoming our villains. But this is not nerd rage or the voicing of an unreasonable wish that adulthood had not occluded my childhood. I’m not saying Yoni Wolf is a Time Lord. He didn’t travel back in time and ruin Elephant Eyelash for me. But he is making me second guess my devotion to his music.
You should like your friends, love your mother, and tolerate your in-laws. Your favorite musicians need not engender these feelings. Honestly, John Darnielle seems like an awesome guy on Twitter, but I keep those feelings separate from the summer “This Year” seemed to make my life worth living. I don’t really want to meet Kanye West because, yes I know this sounds impossible, but what if he was a dick? God forbid I find out he’s a moderator on Reddit. I could never listen to his music again.
The problem with feeling an emotional kinship with your favorite artists intensifies as their work becomes more personal. You start to associate their work with their personal character, and after finding out Mel Gibson is a raging asshole anti-semite, can anyone really watch Braveheart at 2am on a TBS Sunday night? Probably not.
I used to get pretty loopy listening to Why? I loved everything about them. It’s hard for me to believe Elephant Eyelash came out in 2005, about the time I really started paying attention to music. The album sounded like something I had heard a thousand times before – in a good way. I remember one of my friends telling me how Why? told independent record shops to file them under “indie” rather than “hip-hop,” which today is a surprisingly archaic notion given many SPONSORED CERTIFIED PLATINUM mixtapes don’t even have ID3 tags. The idea of genre, having been abandoned by Billboard itself, is a vestigial organ, a child’s treasure map guiding record review assignments.
Why? sounded like Beastie Boys (or maybe Beck) meets Elephant 6, and I loved it. Admittedly, this was well before I was even “into” rap, so the idea of white boy slam poetry (on quaaludes or maybe cocaine) sounded amazing.
I first heard Why? after moving to Albuquerque from Upstate New York. I saw Yoni Wolf as one of those painful Berkeley-by-way-of the-midwest types. I felt like I’d found someone like me, some no-placed no one who had found a freak-friendly home. He drew from all sorts of places, had a complicated life, toyed with drugs and the idea of suicide. So I think my love was totally justified, and even though I don’t think Elephant Eyelash forms a 1:1 map of my life, I still find it breathtaking. There’s a lot of youthful, creative shit going on that you simply can’t achieve by turning up the ‘gain’ knob of your Fender amp (ahem, Cloud Nothings).
A song like “Sanddollars” sounds like a little-country-that-could national anthem. The chorus of “Waterfalls” — “Your face never forgets a cry, like trace remnants of acid in your spine” — that’s some deep drug wisdom from on high. It’s one of those profound metaphors that (totally accidental maybe?) harbors deep explanatory power and helps me make sense of myself and my experience of everyone else (my mother, my girlfriend, my friends, my dog maybe) by making sense of my experience of myself – a truly drug-trope type of drug-trope, but true nonetheless.
The bit before I even get started on “Gemini” goes like this: “Gemini” is probably one of the best five or six songs ever written about how paying close attention to life is a form of transcendence – right up there with Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” and the photography of Stephen Shore. The drive-thru lady at White Castle just constantly informs my understanding of life, even though the White Castle down the street closed down sometime last year. That’s just its first act.
The song’s next move creates a wavy, wobbly melodic shield against just about the only indignity of young manhood: losing out on a young woman. The lines “I thought we’d keep our veins tangled like a pair of mic cables,” “two skinny dolphins swimming” and “you offer to start the shower” create this sad, beautiful image of not being with/being with someone, and how that becomes more important than anything in your whole life.
As recently as four years ago, on Alopecia, Yoni Wolf could turn the line “I’ll suck the marrow out, and rape your hollow bones, Yoni!” into an uplifting, album-defining set piece. We’re talking real mordant dead cat emotional bounce. It seemed like every other Why? song offered the sort of powerful, pure serotonin surge that you can count on with good drugs, a hard run, or sex. It seemed pretty clear to me that that was the whole point of the band/project/music – to wield an amazing emotional dexterity in the service of writing (at times) creepy ass lyrics into emblematic, generation-defining singalongs.
Wolf reminds me of Rivers Cuomo. There’s been a decade-plus preoccupation with the same themes and ideas combined with a failure to grow in the way you present those themes and ideas. Basically, cranking out three-chord power pop songs about teenage girls when you’re well into your forties. (You might say Bob Dylan has a late-onset case of Rivers Cuomo Syndrome.) RCS isn’t fatal, but it is known to cause festival tour fatigue, a profound misapprehension of your purpose in life, and your fans to either jump ship or become dogmatic, $12-at-a-time worshippers of your ‘early stuff is better but this is OK’ bullshit.
What I’m saying is Wolf is getting old (like everyone else) but not very gracefully. Not that I’m aging especially gracefully either, but I am wearing a cardigan, paying my bills on time and only getting blackout drunk once a month.
With Sod in the Seed and Mumps, Etc., it’s pretty clear Yoni has lost his edge — or maybe found a new one — and it’s not entirely clear how or why it happened. He didn’t trade his guitar for a sampler, though that might help.
“Sod in the Seed,” the title track of the EP, was the first thing Why? had released in years –a re-introduction of sorts to their artistic vision. It sounds overwhelmingly like a theme song for FreeCreditReport.com or a sub-Pomplamoose Hyundai commercial – an idea Wolf might know subconsciously given three rather inessential references to cars in the song. The song continuously throws tropes and ideas against the wall as they streak down like an overdone cinematic exit wound. Yoni’s, like, mad popular. He’s a Portlandia-type Bay Area hipster. He hates bros and he’s biblical. The alliteration is bad, and there’s too much of it.
But maybe there is some truth tucked in toward the end of one verse.
But I can tell by your polo slacks, Sebagos, and blank stare
You’re good for the total package and game to be back there
But who am I to judge a man’s heart by his yacht wear?
And it scares me to death, yes, that I’m starting to not care
It’s this lack of caring how someone dresses that signifies Yoni’s form of growing up, but this same apathy has also translated, I think, into the music itself. There’s always been a sort of cluelessness about Why? that arrives with the scenery of being young. At this point, the whole Why? project can be defined as trying to figure out what the fuck to do as you get older. You can’t just release another song about wearing shell toes because Meek Mill is half your age. You have to grow. Or you could do what Wolf seems to have done: pull a Speed-style “We have to go faster” move and really lean into his Rivers Cuomo Syndrome.
The rest of the Sod in the Seed EP varies little. There’s “For Someone”’s vanilla rumination on being young, the Raffi-esque “The Plan,” which also seems to be about little children. The only thing remotely interesting about the EP is its last song, “Shag Carpet,” a song about slightly aging out of your cohort:
Teen night over at the roller rink
Rehearsing slow lewd winks, nude, at the men’s room sink, y’all
Evil, pink, small, lesser, surly, and lurid
Open girlies for leisure, never not where the youth is.
Son, the putrid things I’ve done for purely my pleasure
It’s horrid, surely at 30-plus it must seem untoward
Now, you could write this off as purely artistic lamping (call it the Odd Future Corollary) if it weren’t for the fact that Wolf the man really is hitting on teenage girls. So don’t color me too naive if I read the song as more personal than fictive.
This thirty-something Yoni Wolf character unfortunately dominates the latest Why? album, Mumps, Etc.. The first song sets out the album’s conceit of being afflicted with a childhood disease (the mumps) that’s gone on to mangle Wolf’s adult (especially sexual) life. It works in a misogynistic swipe at the same sort of chick (“some dumb tart from Illinois / In a shirt that says, ‘I heart Michigan Boys’”) who Wolf’s frantically going to try to fuck, subsequently. And it has the album’s centerpiece, thesis-line:
“It took me thirty years to learn my patterns / Just for shit to turn weird in my return to Saturn.”
Drawing from that line, the album is deceptively simple: childhood fucks you up, you take it out on other people, then get older and realize you’re too tired or too horny to learn anything from this realization.
“Waterlines,” as hard as the ignominiousness of it is to conceive, is like a B-side of “Sod In The Seed.” It’s a lot of staccato death-marched rhyme bearing not even the slightest resemblance to something anyone should listen to. And like a flicker of self-consciousness lighting up amid the vapidity, there’s a poignant question lodged in the chorus — “Do you all, when you find yourself in your late 20s want to make money?” I am guessing (from personal experience) the answer is yes. Hence the sub-Pomplamoose-stylings. Then the song is off again with some (ironic? serious? does it matter?) weird sexual bravado:
Girls used the fawn over my locks to kill.
Now the girls are gone and I’m on minoxidil.
I’m in decline but women like be jocking still
Cause I rhyme with skill and talk so chill and youthful.
Bird dog in the mating yard to be truthful.
The song concludes with: “I’d prefer to be some unknown with a sports car / Than pen the dump pun poems as a poor star.”
As someone still paying off student loans, I can sympathize. But he comes off as nasty and aloof. The same themes recur: childhood is a disease that cripples your inner adult, which fades like an MC Escher figure into the idea that growing up makes you miss being a child. Overall, you get the idea Wolf is not a great person.
I guess there’s another salient line from “Bitter Thoughts” toward the end of the album: “Keep your producer guessing when you’re in the booth confessing and say it was mostly fiction if they ever come to get you.” That’s just hedging. This line touches on other major problems of Mumps, Etc.. The production and instrumentation just aren’t that good. Even the forgettable Eskimo Snow contains inspirational musical ideas: the madcap percussion, loopy crescendos, slow arpeggiated chords, and transients whose lives are extended through probably excessive echo. These ideas mean something to me. A hedged innocence, an earned enlargement of the present. The aesthetic style of Why? has always straddled this Jon Brion-y Olivia Tremor Control-y slam poetry vibe that sounds terrible on paper, but makes you want to take up power walking or something when you actually hear it. There’s none of that here. The music gestures at it, but its grasp is echoing and empty.
Ultimately, Sod in the Seed and Mumps, Etc. are fine. It’s just that everything before was so fucking good by contrast. The difference between Mumps, Etc. and Episode I is that the latter will probably go on to spawn a new generation of Star Wars fanatics, whereas the former won’t even register with anyone who’s never heard “Rubber Traits” or “Song of the Sad Assassin.” Mumps, Etc. doesn’t even give a hint of Why?’s previous ability to inspire. Worst of all, Wolf’s given you a complete picture of where he’s at right now, and when you hear it and are disappointed, you’re not even left wondering why.