Yoni Wolf once cursed his mustache—his most salient facial feature besides his horn-rimmed glasses—on Alopecia’s “The Hollows.” Since then that mustache has remained curatively trimmed but never shaven. The distinctive characteristic of WHY? lyrics from album to album has been Yoni Wolf’s diagnostic sense of his own dissatisfaction coupled with his inability, or undesirability, to change. Consequentially his lyrics have tended to be bathetic, which somehow made them more relatable. The emotional uncertainty of WHY? was vindicating for the twenty-something kids who feel like figments of a liberal arts degree and know more about the bands designated to 8-point font at the bottom of festival lineups than they do about themselves.
Lyrically and thematically Moh Lhean is the most revisionary album of WHY?’s career. It’s their first album that doesn’t sound like they began as the solo rap project Yoni Wolf devised to wane about high school and gradually latched a band onto. The lyrics on Moh Lhean are sparser than usual and the vocal harmonies are more abundant, replacing Yoni Wolf’s de rigueur abjection with an inclusive sympathy.
On “Water” he sings, “Me and my brother/we don’t say shit for hours/maybe even longer,” with “shit” gratingly emphasized. At first listen it sounds forced, like he’s someone who derives callow satisfaction from singing “Hollaback Girl” at karaoke. But what’s forced is actually the presence of a second voice, not harmonizing but vying to express the same statement in tandem with Wolf. This voice, presumably, belongs to bandmate and brother Josiah Wolf. A revelation of mutual understanding occurs in that detail. For the first time it seems like Yoni, a guy who on “The Song of the Sad Assassin” intimated he would have liked to die while he was in a relationship so that the ego still beating in his corpse could be satisfied with his girlfriend’s mourning, is now accepting that his solipsism might be due to lack of empathy. Of course if two guys don’t say shit for hours one of them doesn’t want to sit back patting a bongo while the other transduces their bilateral discomfort into a cathartic yelp that’s all his own.
Two interludes, “January February March” and “The Longing is All,” clocking in at 41 seconds and 1:10, respectively, stand-out for how they’re tied into the album’s scope. “January February March” sounds like an amateur taper catching crowd noise in a small room before a Master of Ceremonies says “give it up…alright.” The MC sounds knowingly out-of-place, defensive and uncomfortable while the people’s attention flits around about him. This might as well be a description of Yoni Wolf’s schlockmeister posturing and lyrics on 2012’s Mumps, Etc. The MC is overdubbed aside by a voice that once sang the words “January February March since you’ve gone away,” but is so slowed down the words collapse into a mechanized din. On the following song “One Mississippi” Yoni belts—insomuch as he can belt—“January February March since you’ve gone away” renewing his voice from his own circumscribing artifice. “The Longing is All” is a droney wash of synthesizers that is tepid and dull, but is immediately followed by Wolf’s assertion on “George Washington” that he “wrote a song called the ‘Longing is All’/ instead of calling you/ I hoped that it’d solve me.” Both of these moments of self-reflexivity are less about crawling into the wormholes of himself, but exploring the personal shortcomings of his artistic expression.
The music tends to get a little too Magnetic Zeros-y for my taste, but this is usually offset with enough held-over Anticon weirdness. Ghost kicks keep the backbeat off kilter on most of the songs and one-off moments from one song will remerge as extended samples on another. The album is crafted with an insidious continuity that speaks to the band’s newfound unity and the sense that Yoni Wolf’s creativity isn’t a divested nitpicked ball of neuroses.