There’s a song on Why?’s 2003 album, Oaklandazulasylum, called “Bad Entropy.” It’s no career high for Why?, which at the time was a solo project for Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf, but it has all the elements that first made the band so arresting: home-recorded hip-hop drum breaks, soft keys, and shy pop production. Wolf’s lyrics are stark revelations and vaguely suicidal. They’re the sound of an awkward Jewish kid singing his own ambitious hooks, spouting non-sequiturs and vivid spoken-word stanzas, and dropping catty brags like a seasoned MC. For more than 10 years now, Wolf has strived to perfect this original recipe. But despite its strengths, Mumps, Etc. is a reminder that practice, clout, and resources can polish up production value, but not necessarily improve poetry.
Across four albums, Why? has slowly cut the fat from its compositions, eliminating clutter and randomness. Instrumentals have gotten tighter and shinier, as have the words that Wolf spits over them. 2005’s Elephant Eyelash and 2008’s Alopecia bordered on alternative hip-hop, but they had power and heartfelt sweetness, both of which are lacking on this new record. Mumps finds Wolf at his most crisp and confident—and it’s uncomfortable. Before, his boastfulness was balanced by his honest admissions of uncertainty, but now the only things that sound sincere are his swaggering double entendres; suddenly the anxiety sounds rehearsed.
Mumps doesn’t tell as many stories as previous work, either. Metaphors are short-lived and abstract, and Wolf spends lots of time philosophizing or generalizing. The imagery doesn’t stick to itself, as heard in the collage of jibes in “Sod In The Seed,” and this lack of a narrative leaves listeners with little to hold onto at a song’s end, making for a tedious runtime.
Musically, Mumps is hit and miss. Wolf’s beats bear some entertaining hip-hop references; the catchy “Sod In The Seed” rings a bit of Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” “Waterlines” nods to A Tribe Called Quest’s “8 Million Stories,” and Wolf has admitted that “White English” was made with The Game’s “Ol’ English” in mind. The high-school-choir vocals, politely in the background on previous albums, now pop up all over, demand attention, and tend to distract.
The most stirring songs come at the end of the album. “Kevin’s Cancer” is a characteristically subtle and charming ode to a fallen fan, Wolf delivers some of his best verses on “Bitter Thoughts,” and a masterful buildup of inertia sees “Paper Hearts” careening to a beautiful conclusion, complete with an Alopecia-esque meditation on death as a fitting epilogue. These latter songs are a considerable payoff, but they don’t sustain the album’s ambling first half.