For Yoni Wolf and his collaborators in WHY?, striking the balance between backpacker hip hop and melodic indie rock is a starting point, not an awkward after-the-fact fusion. Wolf’s seamless shifting from wordy speak-singing to held notes is a necessity rather than a feature. If that fluidity didn’t work, there wouldn’t be a WHY? at all. But focusing on Wolf’s talent for code-shifting ignores the bigger issue: the guy has a seriously weird voice. More to the point, Wolf’s voice — which is perhaps how They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell would sound if he greeted life’s complexities with ennui and tears as often as absurdist humor — is tough to parse emotionally without the right musical cues.
On 2008’s Alopecia, WHY? solved the problem by pairing Wolf’s most focused, death-obsessed set of lyrics with music equal parts ominous and tuneful. It left little room to mistake his humor for mere levity; the funny stuff was just cover for quite serious topics. Things got a little fuzzier on the following year’s Eskimo Snow, a collection of songs recorded during the Alopecia sessions that exchanged both hip hop signifiers and gravity for lush tunefulness.
Sod in the Seed, a lead-in EP for the upcoming Mumps, Etc., is neither as dark as Alopecia nor as light on complex rhymes as Eskimo Snow. But Sod‘s weaknesses come from the lack of musical context given to Wolf’s inscrutable delivery and predilection for the killer phrase over the killer song. When Wolf breaks from a barrage of internal rhymes to deliver “Sod in the Seed”‘s sung chorus, “I’ll never shirk this first-world curse / A steady hurt and a sturdy purse,” it seems less a commentary on the verses’ nonsensical anecdotes than a sloppy attempt to patch them together. On “Shag Carpet”, he cops to a life of debauchery and loneliness, but when he admits to the lack of self-knowledge driving them, it’s with the same self-mocking tone. Wolf’s cynicism on Alopecia sounded earned and deeply felt; here, his free association and one-liners sound glib.
WHY? still impresses with moments of inspired melody and instrumentation, and, despite his emotions being somewhat impenetrable during the talkier moments, Wolf has unmistakeably become a stronger singer. It pays off in particular on “The Plan”, a sweet-sounding ballad with a sour ending, and “Twenty Something”, a metronome-defying oddball love song that picks feathers from a bird “like some killer’s crazy form of ‘petals from a daisy’” and finds “real peace in the regular order / Of my most intimate geometry.”