A lot of talk about this most recent Why? album has focused around the perceived flaw that is the regularity with which lead singer/rapper Yoni Wolf discusses, in terms that allow no mystery, his life as a now-seemingly-somewhat-reluctant indie-rap star. Detractors seem to have taken issue with the idea that, whilst it’s fine to hear Drake or Kanye rap on about how mega-fame can’t bring you happiness, Why? are very much in a different league, having achieved a level of indie stardom that allows them to tour the world, be adored by the press, and still not get hassled in the street. Being in Why? seems, well, kinda cool, right? So why all the bitching?
But Why? fans, as opposed to Why? critics, are a different breed. I’d imagine a fair few of them are quite interested in Yoni Wolf’s current state of mind – whatever that might be – given that a significant number will have followed his development over the course of three previous, often really damn great, albums. It’s likely that the more emotionally invested of their followers may indeed find something here to get a kick out of. And given that they’re apparently increasingly fed up with the attention, it seems things have got to the stage where Why? aren’t overly concerned winning over too many more fans anyway.
That’s a good thing too, as Mumps probably won’t be doing much of that. The problem isn’t that there’s too much moaning (though there is a fair bit), it’s just that it’s not done with the wit or insight we’ve come to expect from Wolf, nor is it backed up by beats or melodies that are consistently up to standard. It’s often the case that when the tune’s good (infinitely hummable opener ‘Jonathan’s Hope’), the lyrics border on embarrassing (“When I got better from the mumps, yes, my swollen nut and neck shrunk”), and as the lyrically intriguing but musically lacking ‘Kevin’s Cancer’ attests, the reverse also rings true. It leaves Mumps Etc. as an album on which it’s very hard to pledge your allegiance wholeheartedly to any single track, and one where the thought of listening to it cover to cover only to find the hidden gems begins to seem more like a chore with every spin.
Following in the path of a musical trajectory they’ve long been on, Mumps Etc. sees Why? increasingly try to purge their music of anything resembling rap. The sentimental croon of ‘Strawberries’ is almost completely removed from anything you might call hip hop (despite its talk of a woman who “smokes weed listening to Garrison Keillor” being how Wolf imagines he’ll “live when I quit my rap career”), and elsewhere, ‘Danny’ sounds for all the world like a downtrodden, discarded Strokes demo. Interesting as this evolution has been to follow – especially for a band on Anticon records – here it sadly seems to bring out their most petulant side, with ‘Waterlines’ being perhaps the song here it’s hardest to love (“Do you all, when you find yourselves in your late twenties, want to make money?” he asks rhetorically before imparting that he “can’t sleep in rental cars or airlines”).
It’d be wrong to write off Why? entirely after one misstep of an album – there are certainly enough musical ideas and tangible self loathing here to suggest that mining them from a slightly different angle could produce the goods. But for whatever music comes next, it sure would be nice for them to find a way to express these entirely valid personal concerns in a way that was more universally relatable.