Ah, Andrew W.K. -- a puzzle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a filthy white t-shirt and jeans. His much-talked-about debut, 2001's I Get Wet, divided critics who couldn't decide if the man truly lived to party as much as he boasted or if it was all a giant put-on set to '80s metal riffs and cheesy keyboards. The issue was never resolved, and the hype around Andrew W.K. waned as quickly as it had waxed. For anyone left who is still curious, AWK's sophomore effort, The Wolf answers the conundrum once and for all: Andrew W.K. does not have an ironic bone in his body. Every word growled out by the man, on every track, means exactly what it is supposed to mean. No subtext, no double entendre, no irony. The Wolf is a primer on self-actualization, but AWK's sharpened focus comes at the expense of creating memorable tunes.
If you've heard any song off I Get Wet, then you already know what The Wolf sounds like -- big, dumb guitar riffs perfect for fist-pumping, catchy keyboards and AWK bellowing out the songs. The man may have grown past songs about partying til you puke, but musically, he's still in a holding pattern. After I Get Wet's party-hearty manifesto, The Wolf is much less insistent on partying. Only one track, "Long Live the Party" even features "party" in its title. Even though it's mentioned less, AWK's concept of "partying" is clearer on The Wolf than it was on his debut. It's less about chugging beers and knocking over your folks' fish tank than it is about having the freedom to live in an environment where you can grow to be what you were destined to be. For AWK, partying is akin to Emerson's Oversoul; everyone's connected: "The more that you can give it then the more it will be / If you do not have it you can take it from me / All we ever wanted was a thing to believe / And now that we have found it we have all that we need" (from "Long Live the Party").
As a result, much of The Wolf is less song-qua-song as it is song-qua-motivational speech. Think Tony Robbins with a Casio. "Tear It Up" recounts AWK's overcoming a troubled youth, while "Free Jumps" advocates severing ties with those holding you back. There are listeners who could use a candle in the dark such as the one AWK provides on these songs. But for those of us with our heads screwed on straight, The Wolf can be a headscratcher at times. That feeling only intensifies when some of AWK's pep talks become too mawkish for their own good. "Never Let Down" sounds like it should be played during the credits of a crummy '80s teen movie about underdog athletes, and with lines like "And even if you can't stand up / Even if you lose your light / I'm a friend by your side / You're never going to be alone", one begins to miss the lyrical subtlety of hair metal power ballads like Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn". Does Andrew W.K. want to be a rock star or a suicide prevention hotline volunteer?
Yes, The Wolf's batch of songs is weaker than those on I Get Wet. But only a cold-hearted sonofabitch would tear down AWK for his messages of positivity and salvation in rock and roll ("The Song", "I Love Music"). So permit me one minor critical U-turn: There is no denying Andrew W.K. pours 100% of himself into each song on The Wolf. He's got focus ("I made a mission my goal / And a vision my job" from "The End of our Lives") and a catchy delivery system for his message -- hey, the songs still rock in their bombastic '80s way. The Wolf is an upbeat, energetic positive-message album that provides a nice counterbalance to the dour, cynical rock scene (Staind, I'm looking in your direction). And to AWK's credit, he didn't turn his sophomore album into I Get Wetter when folks (myself included) expected just that. I'm apologizing in advance for my pretension, but if I Get Wet was the Dionysian night of revelry, then The Wolf is the Apollonian road to recovery and self-improvement.