Why?, ‘Mumps, Etc.’ – Album Review
“No, I am not OK, boys” sings Why? frontman Yoni Wolf on ‘Strawberries.’ And he’s right; he most certainly is not. But then again, it’s hard to imagine a Why? track where Wolf is anything but depressed, dejected, disheartened, incensed, jilted, in the throes of cripplingly neurosis or just plain sad. For better or worse, the Yoni Wolf that comes across on record is as much a collection of maladies as a man, and ‘Mumps, Etc.’ may be his most his most fatalistic self-diagnosis yet.
The record will surely be seen as a return to form following 2009’s ‘Eskimo Snow,’ on which Wolf eschewed rapping for more traditional indie rock fare. And in truth, ‘Mumps, Etc.’ may be more rhyme-heavy even than 2008’s ‘Alopecia.’ Tongue twisters, and verbal acrobatics are a large part of Why?’s appeal, and the imagery of lines like “G4 motherboards with ’90s porn in their cache” (‘Thirst) and “Your mom, she sits while her hair is in curlers / Smokes weed and listens to Garrison Keillor” (‘Strawberries’) is as vivid as anything he’s ever penned.
Yet, ‘Mumps, Etc.’ is not a retread — at least entirely. While past albums made Wolf’s problems look largely psychosomatic, ‘Mumps, Etc.’ attempts a realer, often scarier view of growing old. Rather than dwelling on Wolf’s love life and social insecurities (though those are here, too), ‘Mumps, Etc.’ portrays a guy whose physical body is literally rotting from the inside out. “Yes, my swollen nut and neck shrunk” raps Wolf on ‘Jonathan’s Hope.’ He’s talking about recovering from the album’s titular disease, though he adds, “Some sick and swollen stink still to this day stays with me.”
The imagery of an aging body also saturates ‘White English’ where Wolf says he’s “out on my old man’s bones parole.” That could be a reference to his father, his own rickety skeleton or both. With ‘Distance,’ he makes things explicit. “Now I’m pushing past 30 / If I bow out as the years close in” he begins, before detailing a hypothetical end of to his indie rock days.
Which brings us to the the record’s other unavoidable leitmotif: the relationship between age and making music itself. While ‘Eskimo Snow’ and ‘Alopecia’ were also meta-records about making records, ‘Mumps, Etc.’ finds Why? looking at music with a more removed, skeptical eye. ‘Waterlines’ sees Wolf describing himself as “older than the youth,” and the specter of financial solvency (or the lack thereof) looms over many of the songs. “Do you all, when you find yourselves in your late twenties, want to make money?” he asks on the title track. (The answer is yes, FYI.)
This may sound like the Why? album fans have been clamoring for, but throughout the LP, there’s the looming sense that we’ve heard this all before. Why?’s adenoidal mixture of hip-hop and indie is well honed — perhaps too much so, to the point where ‘Mumps, Etc.’ occasionally sounds rote. The beats serve their purpose, the band is tight and the lyrics are wry and sardonic, but five albums in, the formula is threatening to wear thin. While Wolf may be aging, the sonic components simply don’t carry the same weight as the once did, and the band doesn’t do much to stretch themselves musically. Looking back to ‘Alopecia,’ where tracks about panic attacks in thrift stores felt legitimately dark and dangerous, it’s ironic that the death-obsessed ‘Mumps, Etc.’ can’t create the same sense of doom. It’s certainly Why?’s most mature album, but only in the most literal sense of the word.