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The end of WHY? had never been too far from Yoni Wolf’s thoughts. On 2008’s Alopecia, Wolf brought his finest album to a peak by confessing to “coffin rehearsal” and ended it with his neck in a telephone cord noose. He repeated the trick on Mumps, etc.’s closer “As a Card,” and it felt like a grim confirmation of WHY?’s suicide note—Wolf spent most of it airing out his most noxious personal baggage and speaking about his “rap career” like a job from which he was begging to get fired so he wouldn’t have to quit. With nothing left to burn—himself included—Wolf commissioned WHY? fans for inspiration and wrote about their social media pages on Golden Tickets. Four years later, there isn’t a lot of fight left in WHY?—and yet, the project sounds completely rejuvenated for that very reason on Moh Lhean.
The remarkable thing about WHY? is that they neither needed a return to form nor a total reinvention. To the same degree Mumps, etc. turned Wolf’s strengths—excessive candor, a keen ear for melody—into indefensible liabilities, Moh Lhean expands on the quiet inventiveness of Alopecia’s less-heralded companion album Eskimo Snow. Previously, “post-rock” just meant “hip-hop” for WHY?, but they took on the late-’90s Chicago sense of the term on Eskimo Snow, favoring neatly layered guitars, mallet percussion, mixed time signatures, and exquisite production values alongside Wolf’s layering of obtuse metaphors and lurid self-disclosure.
If the genre-agnosticism of WHY? is no longer novel, it’s still stunningly unique. The arrangements are dazzling in their coherence, especially given the diversity of instrumentation and textures whizzing throughout. The most striking aspect of Moh Lhean is how beautiful it is, even more so since this is their first self-produced album since 2003’s Oaklandazulasylum, one of the definitive documents of the Anticon’s confrontational prog-hop. But Moh Lhean is built to withstand any live show where the triggers and synths malfunction. Acoustic guitar plays a surprising leading role in songs that could be covered as a sturdy blues (“This Ole King”), steely folk (“The Water”) and a straight-up power ballad (“George Washington”).
Unlike the pointedly organic Eskimo Snow, Moh Lhean contrasts all of its lush sounds with brash drum programming that mimics the ungainly motion of the human body, shifting in and out of rhythm with intricate math-rock layering or juddering non-quantized beats. Of course, these are the kind of playing fields where Wolf’s unconventional vocals best operate. Though he’s long proven capable of carrying a tune, Wolf’s still no one’s idea of a pretty vocalist. His imperfections—the odd timbral grain of his high notes, his taste for self-deprecation (“I’d be white, weak and blind/the opposite of oxen”)—provide the edge even though Moh Lhean is anything but belligerent.
Wolf underwent a non-specific “health scare” during the past few years and calls Moh Lhean a “breakup album.” No longer psychosexual neuroses personified, Wolf exhibits a kind of post-traumatic calm, using situations as an opportunity to reflect on how to love and be present. Moh Lhean is rife with scenes that raise the possibility of WHY? having been a covert emo band all along—watching shooting stars in the parking lot, writing love letters from the road, sitting in a boat with his brother after a hospital trip. Past albums relied on the shock value of confession for payoff, but Wolf trusts the emotional contours of his delivery to express the state of being in a moment across in concise, affecting phrases like “This one thing,/There is no other,” or, “I’m on fire,” or, “I’ve got to submit to whatever it is in control.”
Artistic restraint is a new concept for WHY? and it’s understandable if Moh Lhean as a whole feels slightly tentative at points—two of its ten tracks are interludes no more than a few seconds, the second of which serves as a preface to “George Washington”: “I wrote a song called ‘The Longing Is All’ instead of calling you/I’d hoped that’d solve me.” Such a line would’ve sounded like an admission of defeat on Mumps, etc., which didn’t lack for lyrics that ruminated on the futility of music. But on Moh Lhean, it’s indicative of a promising new outlook. With his health and his band fully recovered, Wolf is starting to realize what matters with the clarity of someone who’s seen a glimpse of the beyond.Share