By Hannah Wisterman
WHY? escapes, in some ways, my ability to describe music. I have an extremely limited vocabulary to describe Yoni Wolf’s voice, half-bored, half-hopeless, all bite. I have tried for years to explain how the opening chords of “The Hollows” make me feel—to no avail. I’ve been listening to WHY? since high school and have yet to find a comparable band to provide a frame of reference for their sound (The Mountain Goats get the closest). So when the band dropped their 10-year-anniversary reissue of Alopecia, my favorite of their releases, I decided to take up arms yet again to see if I could pin down why this band, and this album, have the power to sit me down and shut me up so effectively.
Yoni Wolf is, to understate it, a really solid songwriter, with a vice-like grip on both connotation and phonetics. Take, for example, track two, “Good Friday,” whose chorus spins the epanalepsis “If I’m sinking in laughing at something sunken I am/sinking in laughing at something sunken I am.” It’s an entrancing poetic device that bookends a line with the same phrase at the beginning and end. This particular one encapsulates Wolf’s love of alliteration and big vowel sounds, which pop up over and over. For instance, in track one on the album, “The Vowels Pt. 2,” Wolf opens with the arresting line: “I’m not a lady’s man, I’m a landmine, filming my own fake death.” (It’s a line borrowed from an earlier one of his projects, but hey, when you’ve got a line as good as that, use it as often as you can.) Note those L/M phrases. The firm confidence of that opener—which really does demand a level of charisma to deliver—quickly gives way to: “Under an ’88 Cavalier I go/but-but-but-but nothing but the rear bumper’s blown,” shattering said confidence.
It’s a theme that leaves its footprints all over the album: Wolf is crushed under the weight of insecurities, of flaws, and his lack of ability to control his life. Wolf as a landmine can’t even blow up a whole car, which carries the same mood as the image he paints a couple of verses later, of himself crying in a bathroom stall after singles’ bingo night. It’s pathetic and he knows it, but it’s not pathetic in a post-punk, relatable way. This is depression and discomfort in a way that’s specific to Yoni Wolf. Using hand sanitizer until his hands bleed, getting angry at being scammed at a street game but being too afraid to fight back: these are snapshots of a very specific life. In that way, it truly is an album unlike any other. I find myself craving the idiosyncratic and completely unique stories this album tells the way I crave films with an unreplicated aesthetic. The story of Alopecia cannot be found anywhere else.
There’s also something about the musical style of Alopecia that’s borderline hypnotic—idiosyncratic in itself. Wolf has a fondness for even-tempo songs with enough layers to pique interest but not so many as to become a vast puzzle or soundscape. Each layer, in turn, is simplistic enough to track, which makes the melodies easy to track as well—especially given Wolf’s aversion to crescendos. The music isn’t necessarily challenging, so it sinks into the psyche of the listener; it permeates your brain. It stays with you. That’s not to say the album is monotone in the least. The variety between tracks goes from defeated self-hatred (“Good Friday”) to borderline mania (“Song of the Sad Assassin”) to disjointed pensiveness (“A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under”), both lyrically and instrumentally. In both aspects, though, you get the sense that each mood and song stems from one another. (This is highlighted by the fact that practically each track flows into the next.) So the songs exist in the same ecosystem lyrically, sonically, and tonally.
In the whole 15-year (give or take) history of WHY?, Alopecia is their first reissue, and in addition, the band will be touring the album this fall. The record is that important. Some critics called it career-defining, and that’s not selling it short. The album is a capsule of a time, place, mood, personality, of an incomparable but un-ostentatious artist. The band has certainly matured since this album (see my thoughts on Moh Lean: Expanded here), but this is an album that nails down exactly what it seems it intended to: the muddled mental struggle of a Midwestern artist with more edge than any of us would know what to do with. But for Yoni Wolf, what to do with that edge was clear: make a killer album.