You’ve gotta love an artist who always finds ways to surprise you. Yoni Wolf has consistently surprised over the course of albums by cLOUDDEAD, Hymie’s Basement, Reaching Quiet, and for the last seven years as Why?, a project which shares a name with his hip-hop alias. Just starting with the Why? material alone, you see Wolf moving from the abstract hip-hop of cLOUDDEAD to the severely skewed bedroom folk of Oaklandazulasylum, into hooky full-band indie-rock and pop on Elephant Eyelash, and then to Alopecia, a diverse, moody batch of songs following their own inner logic and employing rock, rap, minimalism, and pop styles. It featured the clearest demonstration of the artistic voice Why? has been chasing, and was played with the instrumental chops Wolf and company have been honing as they’ve developed as songwriters and as a live band. This body of work is a fascinating study in the development of an artist, so new release Eskimo Snow comes highly anticipated. The songs for Eskimo Snow were actually recorded during the same Minneapolis sessions that produced Alopecia over two years ago, ans as the sessions progressed, the band started to sense two different records emerging, and ended up with two different full-length albums. So, what surprises does Why? have in store this go-round?
Both the narrative and musical tone of the album is different than anything they’ve done before, but subtly so. Delivered in Wolf’s usual word-drunk style (with no rapping whatsoever), the lyrics here still dwell in uber-aware existentialism, chronicling obsessions with death, masturbation, family, identity crisis, aging, numbness, and home through witty observations and ultra-frank confessions. On this latest effort, the lyrical content can start feeling like rehashed at points, referencing soapy lubrication in the shower, wearing current styles, living with hunger, hair loss paranoia, suicide notes, and even reprising the line “Looks like a sky for shoeing horses under” from the previous album. This lyrical wheel-spinning is a somewhat minor quibble, though, especially considering the sheer volume of thoughtful words included. What’s really notable about Eskimo Snow is that the sourness and desperation from Alopecia and the heartsickness from Elephant Eyelash have morphed into something more insular and purely existential. Though always extremely introspective, Wolf’s characters used to react more to things out in the world, be it an ex-girlfriend, overzealously religious friends or family, Jesus, or other unnamed foes and obstacles. These ten songs are resigned and sad, and chronicle the thoughts of a person who doesn’t fit into the world and looks inside instead of outside to know why. They bring to life, and in their own strange way celebrate, the struggle between personally significant details and the inescapable conclusion of ultimate insignificance.
The sound, largely anchored by piano and vibraphone, has more of a live band sound and hews closer to the Reichian-pop side they flirted with on songs like “A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under” from Alopecia. The main criticism I have of Eskimo Snow is that the timbre of the music feels more safe and one-dimensional than prior output, especially using the piano as the dominant instrument, which sometimes sounds more nice than interesting, and makes the rest of the band feel a little bit backgrounded or unimportant. But the copious internal shifts in the songs spell this tendency pretty well, especially on repeated listens. The songs aren’t afraid to kick up some momentum only to collapse into something more languid, or vice versa. And there are twists and turns even in these piano-based songs that will perk up your ears. The ballad-ish “This Blackest Purse” is the exception from the piano, the tinkling chords painting a broad but intimate and sensitive picture, and leading one of Why?’s best traditional sounding songs yet. It also includes one of Wolf’s best lines, “I want to speak at an intimate decibel with the precision of an infinite decimal”. The monkey-esque cooing in the background of introductory track “These Hands” is a left-field thrill everytime. The anthemic “Against Me” raises enough racket with simple elements, and wonders when someone will “raise a scythe against me”. “One Rose” is a great rumination on human development and mortality over a bed of death ballad acoustic picking and graceful flourishes on keys. The jauntiness of the music and rueful reflection in the lyrics of “Berkeley By Hearseback” gel to fantastic effect. Title track and album-closer “Eskimo Snow” brings the acoustic guitar back out for a bittersweet dénouement that sounds like the closest Why? and Wolf have come to feeling comfortable with their place in the grand scheme of things, and provides a small lift at the end of a somewhat austere bunch of songs. The understated songs are the most memorable here (and the least Why?-like), and it sort of makes me wish the rockier material were shelved so that the whole album could be tailored to this mood of graceful resignation.
At first, I thought this would be a negative review, but in the process of listening to this album numerous times in numerous places, and sitting down and reading the lyrics, it really started to show more definition and made sense as a full-length project. Since these songs were written and recorded over two years ago, the only concern is that we’re missing out on a few years of Why?’s fascinating development. Let’s hope we get some new studio sessions in the near future. But for now, we have Eskimo Snow, just in time for fall’s gradual but assured death and winter’s numbing cold.