[5 October 2005]
After a number of beautifully flawed and fractured attempts, Why?‘s Yoni Wolf finally realizes his hip-hop informed indie-pop aesthetic with Elephant Eyelash. While prior efforts were undercut by his impulsive restlessness, Wolf harnesses his inherent affinity for aberration and abstraction and directs it into an album that is more engrossingly O.C.D than aversively A.D.D. While still retaining every endearing idiosyncrasy, he exhibits unprecedented restraint over song structure and subject matter allowing his masterful word working to take its rightful prominence. This newfound focus makes Elephant Eyelash even more accessible than Wolf’s previous output yet proves itself every bit as adventurous.
Even at his onset, Wolf distinguished himself from fellow Anticon alumni like Sole and Doseone by being much more They Might Be Giants than Deep Puddle Dynamics. That pop playfulness was plagued by Wolf’s willfully chaotic compositions of unresolved movements leapfrogging over each other at whimsy. Backed by a capable and collaborative band, Wolf elaborates on these truncated tune fragments and sustains them over an intended trajectory. Rather than the sudden swelling and hasty deflation of his early work, these songs surge into the cathartic pop that was all too often absent in the past. Although they may be more coherent, these arrangements are still hardly conventional or commonplace; brushed snare reggae rolls offset the plaintive acoustic arpeggiation at the onset of “Crushed Bones” and rollicking carnival runs punctuate the piano ballad of “Fall Saddles”.
These songs bolster an improved sense of subject matter in Wolf’s work. His defining “coffee’s turned my darkness into Woody Allen long-sigh anxiety” obsessions with leaving lovers, sex, and death remain but trimmed away are all the absurd and impenetrably personal references to things like cat food bowls and shirtless frisbee players. Wolf keeps his focus fixed on readily identifiable if albeit aching themes and refrains from the overtly and overly intimate details that had him censoring his own vocals on his last album. Of course there’s still plenty of embarrassment and awkwardness in play through numerous references to masturbation and ruminations on spent semen. Even then, Wolf avoids outright obnoxiousness with winking playfulness.
These advancements in both songs and subjects set a foundation for some of Wolf’s best lyrics yet. Honing his poet’s eye in “Crushed Bones”, he captures the spirit of indie hip-hop back in the day when it was still just called “underground”: “Us in navy blue hoodies and khakis / As was the style that year”. Moving onto the bombastic head-nodding chorus of that same song, he illustrates his aptitude for elaborately unpleasant imagery with lines like “Your eyes are slits in bags of fat / And your eyes are pissholes in the snow”. Yet for every discomforting passage such as a “snail in salt” writhing “for some time like a lemming’s severed limb on fire” in “Act Five” there are also such humorous asides as “I’m fucking cold like a D.Q. Blizzard / You act like a slut, but you’re really a freezer” in “Yo Yo Bye Bye”. Astute observations abound as well in “The Hoofs”: “Portrait of some Asian mountains / That says ‘patience’ in a funky italics”. Other passages are pure pleasure like the lolling, mouthful-of-taffy euphony of “no mound of clouds to lounge on” in “Light Leaves”. Then there are the precious lines like “When we’re on other sides of the globe / I thought we’d keep our veins tangled like a pair of mic cables” in “Gemini (Birthday Song)” and outright beautiful images like “The rain is millions of tiny speech bubbles unused / The collected breathes of mutes and all our silent exhalations” in “Speach Bubbles”.
That moving metaphor of rain drops as wordless pleas that make storms “confession weather” is wondrously woven throughout “Speach Bubbles” and establishes rain and water as one of many unifying themes in Elephant Eyelash. With aqueous images recurring again in “Gemini (Birthday Song)” and “Waterfalls”, those two songs also incorporate images of physical detritus and decay that reemerge in “Light Leaves”. The subject of suicide shows up there and back in “Gemini (Birthday Song)” as well as with the “always be working on a suicide note” exhortation from “Rubber Traits”. The cause of all this absurdist angst may just be another album-spanning subject of an unwelcome end to a relationship.
Even more impressive than how deftly Wolf intertwines every song on the album is how he manages to deliver an otherwise dreary bundle of anxieties in a way that is delightfully engaging and even inspiring. His pervasive persona is just as goofy and giddy as it is gloomy and proves instantaneously ingratiating. Just the way he draws words like “lips” and “tapes” out into two syllables is as infectious as Mark E. Smith’s supplemental “uuh"s and “aah"s attached to almost every one of his words. The passion in Wolf’s playing is equally undeniable as with the way he tears into the snare drum on “Whispers Into the Others”. All of this amounts to a feeling that even in the face of the most harrowing inevitability, one must act out as they can to preserve their own significance.
With this effort then, Wolf emerges from a morbid shroud of existential dread and embraces its much more vibrantly colored counterpart. Even if it is all for nothing, it is our nothing to savor as we move through it. Endorsing this by extracting beauty from his most awful and embarrassing experiences, Wolf has surpassed his personal best with one of the best records released this year.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/why-elephant/