I was maybe 10 or 11 when the concept of mortality set in and I started losing sleep about dying. Not necessarily about dying right then, but just, you know, eventually—inevitably. I'd try to wrap my head around the idea of not existing and end up hyperventilating. That it's such an incomprehensible bummer may be why there aren't more pop songs about death, even though it's infinitely more universal than, say, romantic love or heartbreak (and, "Taxman" aside, nobody wants to hear about life's other proverbial certainty). Yoni Wolf of genre-blurring band Why? may never have had panic attacks about it, but he's certainly not afraid of tackling death in song—in fact, he's made a whole impressive career out of it.
Why? started as a solo recording outlet for Wolf while he was still working with landmark hiphop abstractionists cLOUDDEAD. By 2005's album Elephant Eyelash, the project had expanded to a full band featuring Wolf's brother Josiah Wolf on drums and multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid (they have since become a five-piece). Eskimo Snow, the band's latest album, comes from the same recording sessions that produced their 2007 album Alopecia, but it lands not like a set of lazily cobbled-together outtakes but as its own cohesive statement, connected to the previous album but with a distinct shift in mood.
Wolf describes the two albums like this: Alopecia is snarky and sarcastic, Eskimo Snow sorrowful and sincere. No doubt. On the former, Wolf raps about "jerking off in an art museum john 'til my dick hurts"; on the latter, he sings with a straight face, "Flowers are how plants laugh."
The difference is reflected in Eskimo Snow's sound as well. Whereas Alopecia backed Wolf's bites with a tense mix of indie-rock motifs and mean hiphop cadences, Eskimo Snow has a more strictly live-band feel, showcasing Josiah Wolf's loose-limbed drumming and McDiarmid's tightly circling keyboard, mallet, and guitar melodies, and replacing the former album's post-produced sound effects with what often sounds like only a room's natural reverb.
Wolf's singular, self-consciously morbid lyricism is the constant. He excels as always at juxtaposing the big, existential questions (hence the band name) with telling little lyrical details, and he handles his weightiest subjects with enough wit and grace to make them seem if not light then at least bearable. There are usually at least a couple layers in these songs: First, Wolf frets about death, then he worries about his fretting, and then he chastises himself for his compulsion to act it all out in front of people and on record. This self-devouring cycle would, you know, devour lesser lyricists or just play out as goth-poetry-notebook solipsism. But Wolf makes the navel-gazing captivating.
You could fill pages excerpting every awesome line from this album, and that wouldn't even begin to examine how skillfully the music parries with the lyrics. Here goes.
"Eskimo snow," Wolf sings on the title track, refers to "all my words for sadness," an astute and arch appraisal of his existing oeuvre. "I hum these prayers in secret/And sing them through speakers in rooms for people to hear it."
On "Against Me," he asks, "Am I too concerned with the burn of scrutiny," before wondering, "Will I gain weight in later life/And when will someone swing a scythe against me" and "Should I offer up my lats and pecs as steaks in death?"
On "Even the Good Wood Gone," Wolf dreams of waking up as a thousands-year-old mummy "looted of gold" and "left not even with my death mask on," before rattling off the objects he'll be buried with in his native Ohio to "throw the scent of my true purpose from god and grave robbers."
On "Into the Shadows of My Embrace," he moans, "I know saying all this out loud should make me feel funny/But you gotta yell something out you'd never tell nobody," just before the song bursts into the oddly joyous lost-childhood refrain "We found a dead fox and a dozen Matchbox cars/When we cut back the hedges at Cortelyou Place." But then on lead single "This Blackest Purse," he hedges, "I'm not who with my eyes from stage I claim to be/I've only cradled death and my own ending flesh from far off and abstracted."
And this barely touches on all the sex ("Will all my unused seed collect like mercury?"), religion (Wolf was born into but no longer believes Messianic Judaism), and self-deprecating humor. The whole album, like all of Why?'s work, is riddled with lyrical rabbit holes and self-referential eddies that reward (over-)attentive listening. If you're going to be up all night worrying anyway, you couldn't ask for better stuff to obsess over.