Is Yoni Wolf ready to retire? On his fifth album with his Why? bandmates – Mumps, Etc. – he sounds more down and out than before, dropping references to letting his band go and implying that his self-confessional word collages are having a debilitating effect on him. “As ill as I am – I am” goes the chorus on the stuttering “Jonathan’s Hope” – and that’s just the first song. Come the next track he’s practically pleading, “I am not okay, boys.”
This is no surprise, though: Yoni has always been a down-and-out sort of guy, but he successfully manages to channel his despair and bitterness through wry, distracted, and disturbing humour. His ear for melody has helped, too, especially during his most recent outings. On 2008’s Alopecia he fused together his 3am blog entry-style discourses with a caffeinated version of indie-rock, making for an end result that impressed listeners as much as it beguiled them and had them asking where the Yoni they knew and loved was. It wasn’t a red herring either, as the follow-up Eskimo Snow proved. Concentrating more on typical song structures and singing his verses and choruses all the way through, it proved to be a bold move if not one that divided fans.
Surely there must have a rejoice of some sort when “Sod In The Seed” dropped earlier this year with its rambling and slyly comical verses, all set to a sleek Outkast-like groove. From the material that followed on the Sod In The Seed EP, it was hard to make out where Yoni was or wanted to go, so it was easiest just to take it for the brief outing it was, led by a strong title track, and filled with middling material.
It’s hard to predict, then how fans will take to Mumps, Etc.. On the one hand it has a great deal more rapping, and at the best moments Yoni sounds top of his game, but at the same time, he’s still singing away, and he’s incorporating more and more live instrumentation. At first the whole product sounds lumbering, if not meandering at points. There’s upbeat stuff here, sure, but as I said in the intro, there’s a lot of sad, bitter, and angry feelings here.
So in a way, then, it’s just another WHY? record, but Mumps takes a little while to sink in in a different way to previous albums. Before you just needed time (and a lyric sheet) to dissect Yoni’s words, taking a good few dedicated listens just to take in and realise what he’s actually saying. You need to do that again with the material on Mumps, and in between making sense of it all (or thinking you’re making sense of it all) you’ll find the arrangements creeping up on you.
One thing that hits you first, though, is that this is album of two halves. On the first Yoni and his band continue their bright jumble of styles they played with on Sod In The Seed: “White English” once again goes for a reggae sound; pretty harps clear the way for a solemn afterthought chorus on “Waterlines”; “Strawberries” twinkles with piano, xylophone, glockenspiel and whistling; and “Jonathan’s Hope” tries out some sonically intriguing percussion (piles of stones being dropped, apparently). On the last six songs strings and horns come in the picture more clearly, but often for mournful effect. On “Distance” a cello makes Yoni sound like he’s more downtrodden and depressed than usual while “Thirst” and “Kevin’s Cancer” incorporate vocal harmonies that sound honest-to-god operatic at points, making the subject matter that bit more poignant. The astounding “Paper Hearts” has Yoni letting out a journal’s worth of inhibitions and revelations while the strings cast him in murky waters and come the end of “Bitter Thoughts” a couple of orchestrated stabs hit like nails in a coffin.
It turns out that “Sod In The Seed” acts as the breaking point between each of these halves. With a bunch of songs preceding it, it gains a new context: when Yoni sings “Let’s review some recent facts” before trailblazing through his verses, he sounds like’s he’s picking himself up and dusting himself off, or just trying to pause for a moment and make sense of where he is. Come the album’s pairing of “Bitter Thoughts” and “Paper Hearts” he sounds like’s venting everything that’s been building up over the course of the album (deaths of friends and fans, things he’s regrets saying, illness). Even though Liz Wolf appears as Yoni’s conscience, repeatedly displacing everything he says, he keeps going on, while on the album highlight “Paper Hearts” he sounds hostile, like he’s about to start tearing the room apart at any given moment. It’s actually kind of shocking just how hateful he sounds.
And while there is hate and despair all over Mumps, there’s also a lot of hope. “Strawberries” couples its regrets with nostalgic synaesthesia (“Strawberries on your birthday, Shirley”) and throws in an optimistic verse about how Yoni would like to live in retirement. That chorus on “Jonathan’s Hope” even manages to find a light (“As ill as I am – I am/ But with all that’s well I’ll yell/ Good god, what the hell, what the fuck”). “Paper Hearts” also manages to break free of its bitterness, while also concluding the album with two sentiments that sum up Yoni’s entire catalogue. The first is “Pre-emptive nostalgia of the possible but doubtful,” which not only concludes everything Yoni sings before it, but also manages to disarm it at the same time. It’s the second phrase that’s rings out better, acting as a calling card for every afterthought while also revealing Yoni’s hopelessly romantic side. “And always something reminds me of you,” he sings, submitting to the inevitable fate that as big as life gets, and as much as he tries to divert his train of thought, there’s always a simple pining for a human connection.
So is Yoni Wolf ready to retire? While Mumps, Etc. certainly wouldn’t be a bad record to bow out on, as long as he can keep fighting his demons, I doubt Yoni is going anywhere. There might be a solid case for it in another interpretation of his lyrics here, but then there’s closing track “As A Card,” which seems to exist for the same reason “Exegesis” does on Alopecia. “I’ll hold my own death as a card in the deck/ To be played when there are no other cards left,” might sound bleak at first but Yoni goes on to reassure the listener that he wants to “open like the bay does to the ocean.” So don’t worry; he’s still got plenty to say.