WHY? Mumps, Etc.(Anticon) Buy it from Insound
Mumps, Etc. is (as you may have guessed from the title alone) a hard sell. For many reasons it is confused, self-absorbed, remarkably gauche. It is so often an intentionally uncomfortable thing to listen to. And yet in many ways it’s the most logical step in the trajectory of WHY?’s career; those who have followed Yoni Wolf’s lyricism for the last ten years or so will recognise the continuity, the characters of his lyrics further along the path down which his confessionalism spirals.
The place to start would be WHY?’s near-perfect cult classics Elephant Eyelash (2005) and Alopecia (2008). And although the widespread reaction to 2009’s piano-lead, soft-spoken left-turn Eskimo Snow was of bewildered disappointment, I’m still expecting a retrospective appreciation soon, just because when I returned to the record a year or so later I found myself floored by it. Its apparent optimism confused many listeners, but it’s arguably the band’s most honest, moving work to date, still full of the gritty details which cement WHY?’s morbid appeal.
That confessionalism, though, is repeatedly undermined on Mumps, Etc., as Wolf takes a sidestep from the persona he’s carved out thus far. He’s written songs about being a stalker (Simeon’s Dilemma), a pervert (Good Friday), a recovering cokehead (Crushed Bones) – but his primary persona on Mumps, Etc. is as a writer, a rapper, and a dishonest one at that. A couple of times he resorts to self-analysis in the third person; the standout line on Bitter Thoughts is delivered by new band member Liz Hodson: “From the backs of ten flyers in pen / The guilt-wracked liar pretends to confess”. Even more troubling, on Distance: “Men and women might yet quote his modicum of the truth / But never will they get right close to Jonathan Avram Wolf”. If guidance can, (as their fanbase would attest), be derived from WHY?’s lyrics, it is coming from an artist whose motivations and authenticity are more insecure than ever, which makes for an unstable, frequently fascinating journey. But it offers no means of decoding the stream-of-consciousness meanderings of say, Paper Hearts or White English, neither of which can claim the hyperspecific vividness or relatability fans are used to.
Although Wolf largely abandoned rapping on Eskimo Snow, he strikes a balance between singing and rap on Mumps, Etc., mostly alternating every song. There’s a remarkable richness to every track, with marimbas, harps, lots of orchestral samples, and arrangements which jostle with but never overpower Wolf’s vocal performance. It’s lush and indulgent, but often intentionally fails to give Wolf comfort in his delivery: Paper Hearts, for instance, begins with a lovely ballroomy piano and reeds twirl, but when Wolf enters, he somehow raps over a triplet bassline and string pizzicato in four out-awkwarding each other.
There’s a similarly frustrating, ill-fitting beat on the record’s opener Jonathan’s Hope, perplexing because the record’s first line is (easily!) its worst: “When I got better from the mumps / Yes! My swollen net and nut shrunk” – surely they were conscious about frontloading something so unwieldy. I think it’s conceivable that an album so meta might be second-guessing responses to a degree, but I’ll leave it up to you whether that’s clever postmodernism or just self-indulgence.
Either way, the band are a shade or two less engaging than we’re used to – Wolf’s self-scrutiny doesn’t excuse choruses as weak as “I am not okay boys” (Strawberries) or his “first-world curse” (Sod in the Seed) or simply describing himself yelling “Good god, what the hell, what the fuck” (Jonathan’s Hope) – and those are the three singles. It’s all been said by Wolf much better before; he operates far better without hooks this time. Still, the verses of Sod in the Seed are fecund with quotables (one favourite: “Does it make me evil? Am I a feeble deranged fuck? / Cause Jesus would and I would not drive the needle exchange truck?”), and as usual with his lyrics, the deeper you go, the more lines stick out and remain with you.
But Mumps, Etc.’s most haunting song is its closer, As A Card: “And I'll hold my own death as a card in the deck / To be played when there are no other cards left”. Something of the postmodern play of the record finally becomes a personal revelation, in the most disconcerting yet genuine way. The line “I wanna open like the bay does to the ocean / With an equal portion of every emotion” feels at once like the most passionate lyric on the record, and some blank existential joke. It’s getting difficult to tell with Wolf, which only makes his music more intriguing.23 October, 2012 - 14:06 — Stephen Wragg