Some people like the swings of high-stakes poker games; some are content with a free drink and a few hands of nickel slots. Why?’s Oaklandazulasylum is fundamentally a pop record, a collection of tunes that has the potential to be pleasing to both kinds of people. Things happen when you expect them to happen, but Why? — bane of grammar checkers everywhere — makes sure that what does happen lands as far from your expectations as possible. Like most highly experimental work, it’s a roller coaster; the highs are speechlessly high, the lows painfully low. Those with the patience to stick it out, however, will find buried deep within in a wash of acoustic guitars, muffled electronics and stuttering vocals, the occasional diamond waiting to be unearthed.
The scattered arrangements of Oakland are pieced together by a thick soup of samples, beats and general weirdness, some of which floats to the surface, some of which lays low in the track. All of them are worthy of replays, as the album is full of endlessly inventive plays on traditional pop. As the opening track “Ferriswheel” gets moving, Why? sings over an acoustic guitar arpeggio, and after a couple of passes, we’ve added horns and, right when we’re ready for the drums, we instead get smacked with a glitchy beat and some fuzzy raps. The eastern-tinged “Seventeen” longs to end gliding gently into a sea of soft chords, but instead it crash-lands into a hideous pit of static.
Why?’s talents as a singer/lyricist, however, may be a tad suspect. His stiff, nasally voice sounds in triumphant moments (such as the first portion of highlight “Early Whitney”) like a melodic Billy Corgan, but he can just as easily (as with the faux-barbershop quartet finale of “Weak Moon”) make you want to plunge a screwdriver into your ears. He can fool you for a spell, leading you into a trap with urban poetry like “and all I feel is guilty as I rubberneck a wreck on the highway.” Then he turns around and drops a line like “There are very few microwaves in the third world,” with no plausible contextual explanation. Robert Frost it ain’t.
The mood of many albums can be ascertained by the activities which might well accompany them. The Chemical Brothers’ Exit Planet Dust is a great party album; Modest Mouse’s The Moon & Antarctica is a great driving-at-night record. There’s really nothing you can do while listening to Oaklandazulasylum. It demands your full attention; it will not allow you to concentrate on anything else while it’s playing, leaving you at the whims of both its brilliance and its cringe-inducing awkwardness. It’s easy to dismiss for its nearly impenetrable shell, but music this repellent that induces such hypnosis is a treasure unto itself.