MOH LHEAN by Why?
Genre: Indie Pop
Favorite Tracks: “This Ole King,” “Proactive Evolution,” “One Mississippi,” “The Water”
It’s a funny thing when an artist makes a name for themselves directly from their own misery. It’s funnier still when a peak comes from portraying a caricature, rather than presenting an authentic self. Having to play Kurt Cobain probably killed Kurt Cobain more than the heroin did, and David Bowie survived for as long as he did through constant reinvention. While Yoni Wolf will never hold the prominence of either of those icons, he’s a funny character study in his own right. The more he seems to present his genuine, complete self, the less fans seem to like him.
You see, Wolf really made a name for himself between 2005 and 2008, when his band Why? released the stellar albums ELEPHANT EYELASH and ALOPECIA. While critics have always struggled to really embrace Why?, they certainly gathered a devout fanbase who adored their unique mixture of abstract hip hop and psych pop. Wolf’s nasal vocals are always going to drive some listeners away, but his ability to craft winding, intricate verses and devastating choruses is hard to deny. ALOPECIA in particular felt like a nose-dive into Wolf’s psyche, a confessional that came from his sub-subconscious. Yet as the years have gone on, it’s become apparent that the morose, bone-dry poet on those albums isn’t the totality of who Wolf is. Throughout his life, Yoni has faced a long series of health complications (alopecia, mumps, Crohn’s, and severe depression, to name a few), and confronting these issues in his music has often left him existentially shaken. More recently, however, on albums like MUMPS, ETC, Wolf has seemed to embrace an earnest optimism, to varied response from his fan base. On MOH LHEAN, it’s clear Wolf is personally doing better than ever, but whether or not this is really what longtime fans want to hear is another story entirely.
Why? have had an ability to craft incredibly well orchestrated songs ever since Yoni’s brother Josiah joined the band to provide the backbone of their elaborate rhythm section. Luckily, on a structural level, Why? is still able to craft rich and sonically diverse music, as demonstrated on album opener “This Olde King.” The band may have moved on from the xylophones, vibraphones, and other more unconventional instruments that used to define their sound, but they still use their drums, pianos, and guitars in a way that is uniquely their own. Their ability to keep a song simultaneously progressing and turning inwards upon itself is still present, although admittedly with less dramatic flare than in their hey day, as evidenced on “Proactive Evolution.” These songs sound very much like a continuation of the brighter moments on MUMPS, ETC, and less like a return to earlier points.
While it’s good to hear Why? still reinventing themselves, it’s difficult to not feel like they’re reaching a more homogenous point in their sound. Album closer “Barely Blur” sounds startlingly similar to Broken Bells, of all bands, and is as humdrum as the majority of that band’s output. Others have made comparisons to Son Lux, which also is unfortunately fair on tracks like “The Water.”. Why? always stood out for how unabashedly strange they were, how distinct their sound felt in a sea of more generic indie. Josiah Wolf is a seasoned, jazz-trained drummer, and the brothers are the sons of a messianic rabbi, meaning that their music has always had more than a hint of spiritual rapture and divinity. Those elements seem to have largely been left aside on this album, but the leftovers are still satisfying enough.
Lyrically, Yoni is in a peculiar place. His sentiments of collected, optimistic agnosticism are clearly reflections of his personal devotion to yoga and meditation, although they may grind against what many listeners are feeling right now. Wolf’s made it clear that the album is not meant to ignore the current political climate, but rather offer a “longer lens” that looks at human history beyond the immediate turmoil of individual elections. At MOH LHEAN’S best moments, this can feel like a breath of clarity, such as on “One Mississippi,” whose chorus goes, “Oh I know, I gotta submit to whatever it is in control / Oh I know, stop throwing shadow on shadow and let it all go.” Wolf is never going to see the world with rose-colored glasses, but his conscious surrender to the forces outside of his control has always guided his lyrics, and continues to do so on the high points on this record.
Unfortunately, the lows are also pretty low on this album. Wolf has touched on the other subjects on this album, heartbreak, ennui, and self-deprecating melancholy, to greater effect on other records. Even more importantly, he’s been better as a storyteller, usually deft at weaving between the vague and the hyper-specific to give a romantic sense of the particular feeling of a moment in his life, if not the literal details. Now, he’s earnest and wistful, clearly speaking directly from personal experience, but to dry and dramatically uninteresting results. Starting the track “George Washington” by explaining what the previous track “The Longing is All” was really about is an original idea, but falls flat in execution.
It turns out that as Yoni Wolf bears more and more of his soul to his audience, it becomes more clear that he really is just a sensitive, middle-aged dude from Cincinnati. The entire funny relationship between Wolf and his fans is predicated on the expectation that he will share everything with them. Yet, as he seems to personally mature and reach a point of clarity, his lyrics and his band’s music seems to become less striking. And that should be OK for anyone. Maybe I’m a little strange, but whenever I’ve really grown attached to an artist through their work, I find myself caring more about them as a person than as an artist. I’ve loved certain Why? albums more than I’ve loved just about any records ever, and I’d rather hear from Yoni and know that he’s doing well than hear that even more heartbreak has befallen him. MOH LHEAN is not an outstanding record, but it proves that the band still has something to share, and it will get them back on the road after years in hiatus. Really, that’s all any of us should expect from a person so willing to give of himself.