It’s been four years since WHY? released their fifth album, Mumps Etc. That record ended on something of a sour note, with the ominous lyric “I’ll hold my own death as a card in the deck/to be played when there are no other cards left.” Similarly, the group’s fourth album Eskimo Snow ended on the phrase “I’m still here barely understanding what truth that rarely calls.” The brainchild of their enigmatic frontman and songwriter/rapper Yoni Wolf, WHY? has often been a vessel through which Yoni delivers his shortcomings, anxieties, self-analysis and grievances. While this approach has often led to some beautiful and moving material, it has also caused much of the band’s music to be harrowing, and for some hard to swallow. A lyric like “jerking off in an art museum john till my dick hurts/the kind of shit I won’t admit to my headshrinker” from the 2008 album Alopecia is a good example of the brutal, self deprecating and often pessimistic honesty of Yoni Wolf’s lyricism.
The first official release under the name WHY? came out 13 years ago now. A lot can change in that space of time, and with the release of Moh Lhean, we hear a man who is starting to come to terms with his own life, in the most beautiful and optimistic of ways, something you never would have picked from the artist after hearing his previous records. Moh Lhean is personal growth presented in the frame of songs, which are difficult to pigeonhole. You could call Moh Lhean an alternative folk album, an album of ballads, a bunch of off-kilter pop songs, or a collection of poems set to music. But none of those definitions would quite do it justice – there is so much to unpack within Moh Lhean, so many wonderful and intriguing intricacies in the arrangements, and such a deep well of metaphor and introspection within the lyrics. For these reasons, as a listener, it is an absolute joy, and for the artist an absolute triumph.
On ‘Proactive Evolution’ (a track we fell in love with when it was released) Yoni croons “I know/I’ve got to submit to whatever it is in control.” This sort of acceptance of the great and unknowable forces which direct the paths of our destinies is perhaps a perfect summation of the views an older and wiser Yoni Wolf now possesses. On many of his previous releases with WHY? much of his writing seemed to dwell on his inability to simply accept the state of life, and the general stress of it all. On their previous release, Mumps Etc, the first track featured the lyric “as ill as I am, I am.” The simple seven word phrase is something of a glimpse into the overall themes delved into on Moh Lhean.
Moh Lhean features no rap, something which WHY? have toyed with on and off. The early records featured as much rap as singing, but one of the best WHY? albums, 2009’s Eskimo Snow, featured no rap whatsoever. Mumps Etc see-sawed between the two poles of rapping and singing, somewhat to the record’s detriment – it seemed to lack cohesion. Whether or not Yoni Wolf has, as he threatened in the lyrics on Mumps Etc, quit his rap career is unclear. But he certainly seems to be in his element as a singer-songwriter, and the quality of the songs on Moh Lhean is indicative of the direction of his artistry from this point forward.
The production on Moh Lhean harks back to 2005’s Elephant Eyelash far more than it does Mumps Etc, and it does this with a modern twist, much to its credit. In fact, this may be the best WHY? release since 2008’s breakthrough Alopecia. But unlike that album, there is a sense of optimistic joy which laces Moh Lhean, something which makes it arguably a more enjoyable listen. Moh Lhean ends with the lyric, “hold on, what’s going on?” Perhaps taking the time to stop, step back and ask the question is all Yoni, or any of us, need to do. Rather than a thinly veiled suggestion of death ending this record, as many of his previous records have ended, there is a certain sense of positivity in this lyric that is beautiful to hear.
A health scare experienced by Yoni Wolf during the production of this album triggered the change in perspective that is so clear throughout it – “(my) self-depricating swagger and cynical squint (was) replaced by a sense of peace in the unknowing” he said in an interview. Moh Lehan is a testament to growth, optimism, understanding and change. It is also full of lovely songs that blossom further with repeated listens, allowing the record to take on multiple life-forms for a listener. It is an outstanding release, and shines brightly in a tumultuous time for humanity. ‘The Barley Blur’ the swirling psychedelic closer produced with Son Lux, and ‘Proactive Evolution’ which samples Yoni’s own doctors, stand out the most on this record, along with the crooked western spattered with colourful synthesisers of opener ‘This Ole King‘.
Moh Lhean is set to be released on the 3rd of March via Joyful Noise Recordings, and you can preorder it here.