With their fourth full-length album Mumps, Etc., American alternative hip-hoppers WHY? – fronted by the deft yet verbose Yoni Wolf – present a suite of moon-bathed quasi-metaphorical considerations of fame and sickness. It’s a record open to endless interpretation, particularly with regards to its lyrical content; Wolf’s multi-faceted vocal personas being dissectible to oblivion but never to an extent that even feels like scratching the surface.
Awaking to a twinkling, stargazing piano figure and a series of melancholic coos, album opener Jonathan’s Hope quickly recedes into a steady array of crumbling beats that mimic medical ventilators with their persistent steadiness. Given the track’s frequent references to illness – a theme that forms a topical centrepiece on Mumps – it’s hard not to view this musical manifestation as intentional. What’s more interesting though – and an idea that’s fully explored across the record’s 13 tracks – is the juxtaposition of relatively upbeat sonic spaces with subject matter that veers from the blackly comical to the downright nostalgic, world-weary and sad.
Recent single Strawberries feels like a continuation of this wistful feel, with its opening couplets of “Strawberries on your birthday surely, the shit I said to hotel managers haunts me,” evoking a number of simultaneous emotions – regret, yearning, sentimentality. With its insistent pleas of “I am not okay, boys,” it’s hard not to view ‘Strawberries’ as a sonata of loneliness in the imposing face of a shifting struggle to survive in the modern world.
Almost as if reflective of the insomnia frequent to illness and stress, Mumps – perhaps unsurprisingly – feels nocturnal. Whether in the form of the frequent dazzling piano figures evoking starlit skies, the reverb-heavy beats mimicking the silence of the small hours of the night or Wolf’s earnest vocal turns which on more than one occasion hint at final hours deal-with-God desperation; there’s a feeling of exhaustion that permeates much of what’s on offer here.
Which brings us nicely to another level on which Mumps’ thematic premise can be interpreted. During the choruses to the rousing and dynamic Way High on Highway 13, Wolf frequently pines that he’s “Obliterated by the end of the night” – it’s a lyric that brings to mind the question of whether all these references to sickness and tiredness, could be reflections on his weariness of fame and music. It’s something also hinted at on Strawberries, where Wolf explores the avenues he’d pursue on quitting his rap career. Along with the frequent punctuations of being misunderstood on Mumps – White English with its implications of being lost in translation or Way High’s refrains of “They have not seen me” – it’s clear that there’s more on Wolf’s mind than the purely physical side of sickness.
Whichever way you look at the concept supporting it – and believe me, there are plenty of them – Mumps’ openness to interpretation is perhaps its greatest strength. It’s a record crafted with depths that deserve to be explored and immersed in, ones that are fascinatingly open-ended and that within a few listens catch the imagination absolutely. If you find the answers let me know, I’ll be spending my nights wandering Mumps’ moonlit hospital corridors in a search for a solution that probably doesn’t exist. Whether it does or not, the joy’s in the hunt.
Words: Alex Cull