The first time I ever listened to Alopecia was on my iPod, as I walked around town performing some errands. On my way out of a Whole Foods supermarket, saddled with shopping bags and post-work exhaustion, I was surprised to hear the following words, delivered with deadpan seriousness: “Today after lunch/I got sick and blew chunks/All over my new shoes/In the lot behind Whole Foods/This is a new kind of blues”. I stopped, turned and looked over my shoulder, wondering if, mere feet from where I stood, some lovesick kid was doubled over in the alleyway, embarrassed, scared and just a little frustrated that he had ruined a new pair of kicks.
Much has been made of the manner in which supposed postmodern artists use familiar products and brands as cultural signifiers — both as an exercise of the allegorical impulse and a reminder of postmodern art’s pop art lineage. There’s certainly a case to be made for an artist like Why? fitting into this sort of theoretical framework. Yoni Wolf has always exhibited both a complete disregard for genre lines and a fondness for peculiar commercial references (few who have heard Elephant Eyelash will be able to forget lines like “I’m fucking cold like a DQ Blizzard”).
But I’m not buying it. Despite the evidence to the contrary, I’m convinced that Wolf is no armchair scholar. His songwriting is far too earnest for his lyrics to serve as a means to a decidedly academic end. And while it doesn’t hurt that Wolf’s allusions often appeal to the — let’s face it — yuppie sensibilities of his hipster audience, I don’t think that’s the point either. Quite simply, I think that Yoni Wolf is a sincere, detail-oriented storyteller and that such references are nothing more than props on the meticulously constructed stage set where his songs take place. If we can relate to those references, or if we choose to examine them with a fine-toothed analytical comb, so be it. For Wolf, they serve no greater purpose than the inscrutable personal references for which he’s also known.
None of this, however, is new. The backdrop behind the songs on Alopecia, that is to say the places, situations and subject matter that drives Wolf’s songs, remains largely unchanged since the last we encountered Why?. Wolf’s observations are still rooted in the mundane, the routine, the stuff of everyday life. What has changed, however, is his outlook. While Wolf has never quite been the most upbeat guy around, Elephant Eyelash unmistakably bears the markings of a man in love. From the giddy handclaps of “Gemini (Birthday Song)” to the hushed tones of closer “Light Leaves”, Elephant Eyelash embraces both the dizzy highs of romance and the quiet contemplation of a shared future.
Alopecia, however, is an entirely different story. Dark, disillusioned and unrelenting, it serves as the messy breakup to Elephant Eyelash‘s honeymoon. Though our narrator traverses much of the same terrain, familiar symbols are now devoid of meaning, day-to-day life has lost its luster. Unmoored, he floats freely from song to song, an observer who lashes out at everything within arm’s reach. As you might imagine, the album can be a bit of a downer and it does have a way of sucking you into its headspace after repeated listens. Luckily, Wolf’s wit, crassness and humor have managed to endure and for every depressing observation on Alopecia, there’s an absurdist remark waiting to break the tension, like an uncle who can’t help but crack jokes at a funeral. Ultimately, it’s this emotional richness, coupled with the band’s equally complex arrangements, that makes Alopecia one of this young year’s most rewarding listens.
Though Alopecia again finds Why? playing in a full band configuration (Wolf is joined by brother Josiah and high school pal Doug McDiarmid as well as Fog’s Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson), it’s a bit easier to characterize as hip-hop than Elephant Eyelash, which was the apex of the band’s flirtation with Pavement-worshipping indie-pop. Opening with “The Vowels Pt. 2”, Wolf speak-sings in his usual nasal tone, letting loose more details than you probably care to know over a foreboding bass line, crisp tambourines and cowbell hits. We learn dates, destinations and flight numbers, we learn that our protagonist drives an ’88 Chevy Cavalier, we’re told that he’s “Playing the wall at singles bingo”. He babbles like someone who hasn’t left the house in weeks, his brutal honesty seemingly just a side effect of his animation.
If you think that’s awkward, wait for “Good Friday”, wherein Wolf really gets unflinchingly personal while straight-up rapping with detached ease over a lethargic guitar line and the clickity-clack of hi-hats. “It feels exciting / Touching your handwriting / Getting horny by reading it / And repeating, ‘Poor me’,” he deadpans, simultaneously inviting repulsion and sympathy. While the song isn’t without a few bits of self-deprecating humor (“Sending sexy SMSs to my ex’s new man / ‘Cause I can”), most of Wolf’s admissions here are simply too confrontational to laugh at. Just try making light of lines like “Jerking off in an art museum john ’till my dick hurts / The kind of shit I won’t admit to my head shrinker / Not even in a whisper / To my little sister.”
Lending a welcome bit of levity to the proceedings, “These Few Presidents” has a hint of Elephant Eyelash‘s bounce in its step, its haunted house organ and buoyant bass line bringing a flicker of optimism to the verses. Though the chorus comes down like a ton of bricks, Wolf manages to keep things from getting too serious. “Even though I haven’t seen you in years / Yours is a funeral / I’d fly to from anywhere,” he croons over a swirling bed of music box-like synths.
Likewise, there’s an airiness to be found in “Gnashville”, though it’s similarly short-lived. The song opens up with a chorus of whistles, backed by a distant piano melody that’s somber yet triumphant — you can almost picture Snoopy dancing on top of Schroeder’s piano before things take a turn for the dark, the melody collapsing to reveal a gloomy landscape of far-off minor chords and palm-muted guitar. Even odder are the hushed vocal harmonies of the chorus, which would sound right at home in a Death Cab for Cutie song. Yet somehow, it all works.
While it should already be clear that Alopecia takes a lot of risks, Why? saves some of the most adventurous arrangements and rhymes for the album’s final third. “A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under” finds parallel keyboard lines racing against a marimba. The end result is the sort of composite melody that could easily soundtrack an educational filmstrip. Though “Twenty Eight” is less than a minute long, it wastes no time in tackling some of the album’s most complex lines, with Wolf twisting the syllables and half-rhymes in his mouth until they fit.
Yoni Wolf has always exhibited a perverse fascination with suicide — on Elephant Eyelash he issued the directive “Always be working on a suicide note” — but Alopecia closes with his most eerie fantasy yet, the brief vignette “Exegesis”, wherein our protagonist feels at a stack of books and yoga mats with his feet, wishing for some sort of cushion “To lessen the pressure of the phone chord / Choking my neck.” Before you know it, the song fades out just as it faded in, leaving us with the feeling that we’re missing the main event. It’s a bit dramatic but serves as an apt ending for an album that finds overwhelming emotion in life’s most ordinary moments.
Like all of the great breakup albums, from Blood on the Tracks to Heartbreaker, Alopecia goes beyond heartache and self-pity to examine the desperation, self-loathing and delirium that a relationship can leave in its wake. Wolf deftly renders this misery with a painter’s eye, refusing to shy from even the most embarrassing details, damning though they may be. While there’s no way to be sure if Yoni Wolf and the seasick lad behind Whole Foods are one and the same, I suspect that they are. After all, what other reason is there to diagram grief in such candid detail than to better cope with it?