, October 17th, 2012 04:09
Regardless of your situation in life, there's nothing quite like a sterile hospital bed to offer a little perspective. The air in the hospital ward is heavy with life and death, and even for those whose stay is fleeting, that can often have a lingering effect. It was a case of the mumps that landed Why?'s Yoni Wolf on his back, a position he once described as "good for the spine... and coffin rehearsal." His half-sung half-rapped vignettes aren't often direct, but you don't have to look too hard to get a sense that mortality weighs on Wolf's mind. That's not the only thing troubling him either, as the symbolical mumps that make up the album's lyrics manifest themselves in career troubles, romantic collapse, loneliness, and depression. So far, so fucking cheerful.
Yet there's a lightness of touch behind each shady subject, and a self-deprecating humour to each would-be morose couplet. What's more, this record seems to be about overcoming those hardships as much as it does suffering them. The album's opener 'Jonathan's Hope' paints the scene of a white dove perched on a truck as a sign of optimism. On 'Danny' - a reflection of a friend's suicide - Wolf assesses that time is on his side to redefine his own life. And where he once neatly observed that all those who taught him card tricks are dying, on Mumps, etc's finale it's now his own death that Wolf holds as a card, to be played only "when there are no other cards left."
While 2009's Eskimo Snow had primarily focussed on sung melodies, Mumps, Etc also sees the return of Yoni's rap-led vocal delivery. There's a hip hop bounce behind the likes of 'White English' and 'Sod in the Seed' that was absent last time around, adding momentum to the pretty chamber pop that the band has perfected since growing out of Wolf's bedroom project. 'Sod in the Seed' particularly is an onslaught of quotables, set to a simple chord progression that Wolf candidly admits was an attempt to emulate OutKast's 'Hey Ya'. It's also one of the funniest songs he's ever written, viewing his career from a distance and questioning its value. He describes himself "pissing hopes and fears through the ears of folks listening", while a "hundred bucks worth of blogger thugs" are sent to "morbidly orbit your toilet like hornets." As the song finishes he zooms out further still, arriving on a more universal point than the wearisome ins and outs of the music industry, concluding: "Good and evil's often neither strength or flaw, but sod in the seed of what you are." 'Paper Hearts' is another exceptional piece of writing, this time taking form in just one elongated verse. Again it's the lyrics which take centre stage, as Wolf seeks closure from a failed relationship and manages to sound confused, bitter and tender all at once. In truth, it's a romance that feels doomed from the outset, but it's realistically complex, and by the narrative's end Wolf hits upon that resonating sadness that is left by an ex-partner's absence. After wrestling with his feelings throughout, the song strips away the metaphors and exhales "and always something reminds me of you..."
These stories and images fit snugly inside the Why? oeuvre, but on Mumps, Etc they feel reflective of a wider crisis of identity. Wolf finds himself lost wearing football socks and sandals ("like, yeah bro"), still trying to settle down while images of death recur like ticking clocks. On the chorus to 'Kevin's Cancer' he sings, "No I know with no uncertainty, that I'm uncertain and I don't know." And therein lies his strength; while we often expect clarity of thought from our favourite lyricists, Wolf's admission that he doesn't hold all the answers makes these songs all the more relatable and poignant.