As a Why? believer, I’m well versed in all the necessary apologetics: Yoni Wolf’s voice isn’t annoying, it’s distinct. His lyrics aren’t garish, he just uses an idiosyncratic vernacular. The preoccupation with death and sex? That’s just straight talk. The list goes on. Though with Mumps, Etc. the latest release from Anticon’s flagship enterprise, I finally have to concede on a few points. All the Why? hallmarks are there, but the album just lacks effusive energy or emotional rawness needed to bring it all to life.
It feels weird criticizing Why? for making an a joyless album, especially given that Wolf is at his best when he’s hyperarticulating exactly how desperately miserable he is. But the problem on Mumps isn’t the sad-sack lyrical content as much as it’s the flat delivery. Where on previous efforts even Wolf’s grimmest death wishes had a certain joie de vivre, here he just sounds bored -- or worse, like a wet blanket.
Things start off strong with “Jonathan’s Hope,” a galloping rant marked with tinkling percussion and rising choir coos. Unfortunately, the vigor doesn’t follow through beyond the song’s final words. The following five tracks mostly just plod along with the same mid-tempo flow carrying each verse to a throwaway chorus. “Thirteen on High” is as memorable as a serial number, and while “White English” adds some color with a slow-motion horn section its descriptions of decay aren’t as visceral as previous stabs at the same theme already on earlier albums. When “Sod in the Seed,” the standout from its eponymous EP, finally kicks in, it’s a relief to hear Wolf talk like he has something urgent to say.
It’s not like the group can’t put together powerful tracks without anger and bombast, either. Eskimo Snow was largely a delicate, meditative affair and it stands as one of Why?’s better releases. Though that album’s focused on twisting out interesting melodies and more fleshed-out instrumentation. In comparison, many tracks on Mumps create no tension -- they just start, jangle around for a while, and stop. Wolf has no chance to ramp up the rapping build the type of verbal pileups that make him stand out.
If this all sounds like I’m just disappointed that Mumps lacks more of the kinetic logorrhea we know Wolf is capable of, it’s because I am. On “Paper Hearts,” he drops the singsong structures for one long rant filled with knotty rhymes and vivid imagery (in one impressive jump he manages to connect the specter of potential romance with “the angular Etruscan tchotchke my mom got me at the Met gift shop in '92”). Through this one unbroken syllable avalanche Wolf manages to show a glimmer of all the pent up desperation and difficulty he attempts to articulate in half a dozen other tracks on the album. For us Why? apologists, it would be much easier to sing the album's praises if they took this approach more.