Genius or insane? There is a fine line to draw between the two, one that artists have towed since the dawn of self-expression. Yoni Wolf, front man and songwriter for Why?, isn’t helping make any distinctions.
Wolf comes off as a literary savant in his writing and delivery with wordplay that pushes the boundaries of free association and stretches the English language. Every word, every syllable, has a purpose — there’s no filler in Mumps, Etc. As such, each sound receives Wolf’s utmost attention when it comes to the delivery.
He focuses on rhythm and perfect annunciation over tonality, churning out verse after verse in a nasally robotic tone that sounds more mechanical with every increase in lyrical complexity. This unique presentation is off-putting at first, but soon becomes endearing, like watching your goofy little brother read spoken word and realizing he’s actually damn good at it. Wolf’s delivery comes across as nonchalant and mostly unemotional — “Bitter Thoughts,” for instance, sounds like he is in a trance and helps the robot theory.
So, is this obsession with verbal detail and lackluster presentation the work of a genius? Or are the abstract scenarios the ramblings of a mad man? That’s anybody’s guess, but strong arguments exist for both directions.
“That’s how I’ll live when I quit my rap career / let her laughter pass the rafters and go out into the atmosphere,” he says in “Strawberries.” The phrasing flows naturally and carries along embedded rhymes, but searching for meaning is another matter. It wouldn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine Why? throwing in some of the verses just to mess with their fans.
For example, try to comprehend the “Kevin’s Cancer” refrain on the first reading: “No I know with no uncertainty / that I’m uncertain and I don’t know.” You’ll hear it over and over, only to finally realize he isn’t saying much of anything at all.
The song “Waterlines” doesn’t exactly help their case when Wolf declares, “women like be jockin’ still / cause I rhyme with skill and talk so chill.” You’d have to be out of touch to take it seriously, yet the words blend seamlessly amongst deeper themes in the same song. He has to be messing with us.
Getting away from the lyrics for a moment, Mumps Etc. features minimalist hooks and rhythms as layers beneath the spoken word. Dark overtones dominate the album with brief departures as in the ironically upbeat “Jonathan’s Hope,” a song that opens with “When I got better from the mumps…”
An organic feel exists throughout the album, carried by acoustic instruments from cellos to flutes, pianos to percussion. As with the verses, the music is nothing if not experimental. This effort experiments with fewer melodic elements than Why? albums in the past, trading in the catchy bass hooks in Alopecia for airy forest flutes and epic climaxes (see: “Paper Hearts”).
In all, Mumps, Etc. is an impressive fourth studio effort from a completely unique band that isn’t afraid to experiment. And they certainly aren’t worried about anyone questioning their sanity.