WHY? makes peace with mortality on their expansive new album.
It’s been quite a wait since 2012’s Mumps, Etc LP. Those following WHY? frontman Yoni Wolf’s musical output will be aware that he has kept himself very busy in the interim, firstly with his ex as part of the cunningly titled Divorcee, and then with Chicago rapper MC Serengeti as indie-rap duo Yoni & Geti. However, this return with his band mates in WHY? sees an older and wiser Wolf broadening the band’s alternative, indie-rap sound. The new album heralds a surprising shift in mood from previous releases.
Wolf has said that this is a more optimistic, glass-half-full album, and it shows. The songs are noticeably shorn of cynicism but are still engaging and thought-provoking. It’s as if he has suddenly come to terms with his place in the world and that has translated into music which is warmer, looser, and more liberated. That said, there is an enormous amount of detail on this record. Songs have clearly been obsessed over with every instrument, hook, and harmony carefully considered. As with the band’s previous albums, it is exceptionally difficult to categorize their sound as it veers from psychedelia to folk to pop all with an undercurrent of hip-hop. Wolf still manages to wring impressive amounts of emotion from his immediately recognizable deadpan drawl, but his focus seems to be on more external matters. What those are are never quite definable, a nebulous thread running through the album that stays just out of reach.
Opener “This Ole King” begins simply enough as a recognizably traditional song with Wolf’s tentative voice backed by acoustic guitar and upright bass. Before long, the song introduces swells of instrumentation, percussion and sweet, ethereal harmonies giving it a more psychedelic, otherworldly feel. Wolf allows the whole song to build before applying the brakes, giving it time to drift, only to gain momentum again. It ends in a dizzying mix of psychedelia, hip-hop and Ali Farka Touré's blues. It’s a warm and welcoming start, like a genuinely open hug from a friend you haven’t seen in awhile. As with all of the songs on Moh Lhean, the production is phenomenal, featuring layer upon layer of instrumentation without ever feeling saturated or over-indulgent.
Wolf suffered an unspecified health scare during the making of the record, and there are a number of allusions to this on the record. “Provocative Evolution” rolls on by under a flurry of percussion with a simple but incessant guitar riff. It ends with the sampled voices of the real-life doctors who helped him recover. “Easy” starts as a Sufjan Stevens-esque piano ballad before becoming ever more intricate. It contains the line, “I know it feels like a cold hand on your shoulder”, suggesting that considerations of mortality may be ever present but it is equally important to focus on living. Rather than darken the tone with somber meditations on death, Wolf sounds at peace with the idea of existence, like he is prepared to embrace the impermanence of life and simply enjoy it fully.
The brighter, shinier outlook is epitomized on “One Mississippi”. It has a clear spring in its step, possessing an agile and supple melody complemented by more athletic beats. Once again Wolf demonstrates his adventurousness as it ends with mantra-like vocal manipulations, not dissimilar to Thom Yorke’s solo work. It’s an album standout with a gorgeous, inescapable, rise and fall hook. WHY? continues to challenge the notion of a traditional genre throughout the album. “The Water” circles around simple bass notes, changing from traditional folk into a deeper, more dub-influenced song. The closer “The Barely Blur” lulls like a sweet lullaby until swells of instruments and organic drums propel it to somewhere more spiritual. Its conclusion feels like coming to rest after long chase, giving the impression that it’s okay to let go of something rather than keep up the pursuit.
Wolf’s spent more time exploring his capabilities as an artist with his work away from the band. The result is that he sounds like he has nothing to prove under the banner of WHY? Moh Lhean is experimental in many respects, but there is by no means a seismic shift in the band’s sound. This is still wholly and unmistakably a WHY? record, but there are subtle changes.There is less of a pronounced hip-hop influence than on Elephant Eyelash, with the beats propping up the songs rather than providing the main focus. Additionally, songs do not follow a preconceived traditional structure. As a result, everything feels effortless, and consequently more self-assured. This is not an artist probing some existentialist crisis, but an artist who has reconciled mortality with the act of living and getting on with it.