, March 20th, 2017 08:39
After nearly 20 years in the game, Yoni Wolf’s lyrics are still ham-fisted. He’s that friend who won’t stop reciting bad slam poetry on YouTube – endearingly earnest, wordy as hell, giddily adding synonyms to the point of tautology. Not only is he “white, weak and blind” on ‘Proactive Evolution’, he’s the “opposite of oxen.” Y’know, because they’re brown, strong and sighted? On ‘This Ole King’ we follow him “up skyward” and “down dirtward” – up where the up stuff is, down where the down stuff is. Got it.
Trouble is, the words sound so nice together, so prettily paired up, that you don’t notice the imagery. On Moh Lhean, WHY? veer from the clichéd – “take this lonesome token/and toss it in the ocean” – to the overwrought – “hand like a crumpled newborn foal” – to the downright bizarre – “I hide in your pores like a puss.” Serengeti balanced the seedy, surreal and sublime on their underrated 2016 collaboration Testarossa, so I had hoped for a little proactive evolution in Wolf’s lyrics. While tweeness does take a backseat here – in 2008 Wolf sung about emptying a wasp from his sock – the similes are still a bit much.
And yet the whole thing is sonically gorgeous. Rarely does this kind of imaginative, lushly arranged art-pop exist anymore. Moh Lhean harks back to the richness of the late 2000s when Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, Yeasayer’s All Hour Cymbals, of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna…, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Beirut’s The Flying Club Cup and Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca were piped through tinny iPod headphones. It may not reach those heights, but I can’t help thinking of that time, which was genuinely joyous for the teenage me.
We’re hardened to affected-but-beautiful music in 2017. Songcraft as good as this easily excused bad slam poetry in 2008 and that wasp lyric is proof. Lord knows Dave Longstreth said some elaborate nonsense on ‘The Bride’ and Ezra Koenig on ‘M79’, not to mention Kevin Barnes on everything, but we loved them regardless. And why shouldn’t we feel the same now about Yoni Wolf?
‘One Mississippi’ tumbles through delicate rhythms and harmonised whistling. After a real life health scare, Wolf vows to “submit to whatever it is in control” amidst a choir of reversed yelps and whimpers. He sounds rapt rather than resigned and the voices rise to a kind of ecstatic chaos before petering out to echo that planned surrender. In contrast, ‘The Water’ rolls along like a wagon, steady and reliable, while ‘Proactive Evolution’, chockfull of flutes and frog guiros, is so compellingly arranged, it’ll be taught in composition classes by 2020. On the slow, contemplative ‘The Barely Blur’, guest Son Lux swaps his usual bombast for a light orchestral touch and brings things to a fine close.
Perhaps we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater in the 2010s. If so, it’s taken us a good seven years to realise. Embarrassed by the lyrical extravagance of our adolescent tastes, we moved on to cooler, trimmer things and so did the artists. But that music was – and is – great. WHY?’s brand of excess ought to be not abandoned, but embraced.