“I’m trying” goes the refrain of ‘The Water’, one of the ten tracks that make up WHY?’s excellent new record Moh Lhean. This refrain works as the outro to the song, which cinematically paints a scene of Yoni and his brother (and bandmate) Josiah caught adrift both metaphorically and very literally, cast out into the sea in silence following a grim trip to the hospital, with downbeat, choppy instrumentation to match. “I’m trying” is also repeated by WHY? singer and songwriter Yoni Wolf throughout our interview, conducted in the far less cinematic settings of a nondescript hotel room in Bristol, where the decor is set to “beige” and stock imagery poses as paintings on the wall. Despite WHY?’s triumphant return after a five year break following 2012’s Mumps, Etc. Yoni still sees his work - both musically with his impossible-to-categorise outfit, and his personal growth - as a process that’s still in progress, even after 14 years of creating lyrically dense, musically playful, and much-loved records.
Moh Lhean is the latest installment in Yoni’s process - WHY? centre around Yoni’s songwriting, and the band write, record and tour in varying incarnations - and is his and their most focussed work to date. This latest release finds WHY? delving further into the autumnal acoustic palettes established on 2009’s lush and slow-burning Eskimo Snow - the hushed, cult favourite follow-up to their blockbuster breakout record Alopecia - to explore matters of existence, spirituality and the closeness and distance we establish with those around us. Following a health scare (which Wolf documented in depth on his Wandering Wolf podcast) Yoni returned home, sat at his piano, and turned his thoughts on “the great anarchic expanse” of the world, and the mass of humanity forced to “figure this out by ourselves” into WHY?’s most warm, considered and positively wistful LP yet.
There wasn’t, however, a flash of lightning and light bulb, just Yoni returning to what he does: “Writing music is what I do - there wasn’t any big plan to this record” Wolf tells me, awakening from his tour stasis and flickering into life as we start discussing the album. “Writing is always what I return back to in my own time, and I had a series of poems, for lack of a better term, and set to writing the skeletons of these songs on the piano, then built them up for this record.” With these skeleton songs built into fully-realised pieces, Yoni and his band started the recording process.
Previous records saw outside personnel working alongside WHY?, but Wolf chose to be at the helm of every aspect of Moh Lhean, writing, recording and mixing the project to ensure the album sounded as complete to the creative forces behind it as possible. Moh Lhean has an unhurried warmth and calmness to it that Wolf attributes to the homespun recording process, taking “the opposite route to the one we took with Mumps, Etc.” and instead “seeking a different flavour this album, returning to the way we made Elephant Eyelash - creating it in our own time and allowing the entire project to be on our terms.” Whilst the lack of pressure can cause the creative process to “linger”, in Yoni’s words, the ability to fine tune every tiny detail of the album means Yoni and his band left “nothing to chance”, and the album’s warm reception by WHY? fans, critics and new converts shows that this focus and creative clarity was clearly worth it.
Alongside Moh Lhean’s gorgeous palette of stacked vocals, gentle organs, glimmering glockenspiels, acoustic strumming, humming synthesizers and the occasional thudding drum machine, there’s a conflicted heart that resonates throughout the whole record. WHY?’s lyrical output has often leaned towards the morbid - Alopecia’s closing track ‘Exgesis’ straight-up detailed Yoni’s idealised suicide, and the closing moments of Elephant Eyelash left our narrator “Cold and hard like a marble tabletop/with nothing on top” - and whilst Moh Lhean does contain traces of the looming shadow of mortality, this record finds Yoni navigating the earth with a soul open to greater possibilities rather than mortal restrictions. “Death’s still a scary prospect but always will be to some extent. However, it’s inevitable so I’m working on it - the same as everyone else.”
“Spirituality” is a tricky term but it’s a term that I find fits Moh Lhean’s outlook on the positive capabilities of the collective human condition, and it’s a term that Yoni is open to talk about with me. Whilst raised in a Messianic Jewish household, Yoni informs me that he’s “not close to faith at this point in [his] life” and hasn’t been for a long time, yet will say that he’s “more open to the idea of that stuff in general: the belief in something greater as opposed to an organised religion.” “Whilst I’m not personally onboard with organised religion, this isn’t to say that I think it’s wrong if someone has found a belief system that is powerful to them and guides them through their life in some way” explains Yoni, “in fact, I wish I had that sort of faith and belief… but I don’t.”
Rather than subscribing to one dogmatic school, Yoni has instead found a form of solace in the greater expanse of humanity and “the idea of being able to connect with a greater whole outside of myself and connect with what’s inside of me too.” Yoni’s belief is a little harder to pin down than one guided by a singular deity, but he explains to me that “I believe there’s a way to tap into whatever might be going on beneath the surface of what’s happening around us - I don’t want to profess to know any kind of objective definition of spirituality - it’s obviously variable depending on who you’re talking to, but that’s what it means to me.”
The “untethered layers” discussed in Moh Lhean’s opening track ‘This Ole King’ are a powerful metaphor for unravelling our spiritual perception, and there’s an air of optimism and of excitement about discovering and “tapping into” the unknown dimensions that move unbeknownst to us, that beam through the track like the first runs of sun following a storm. This sense of discovery and newfound understanding also shimmers on the beautiful ‘One Mississippi’ wherein our narrator, riding a reaching chorus melody, opts to “Give in to whatever it is in control” and finds a solace reflected in the track’s sampled vocal patterns that whirr through the track like warped angels. Whilst there’s no easy answers to the complex core of the human condition and the tragic restrictions we all face, there is joy to be gleaned in the search for understanding of ourselves, and the ones we hold dear, and Moh Lhean ponders these humanistic explorations with the wit and honesty we’ve come to expect from WHY?.
Whilst the subject of spirituality may be new to those who’ve been following WHY?’s recorded output, the soul-searching and soul-baring across Moh Lhean will ring warm and familiar. In conversation, Yoni is a calm and reserved presence, but those who’ve listened to the band’s records will know he’s unafraid to show the darker sides of his psyche in his lyrics, whether it’s on Alopecia’s standout ‘Good Friday’ which reads as both a plea for forgiveness and a concrete litany of sins or the couplet “Pull apart the double helix like a wishbone/Always be working on a suicide note” that was snuck into Elephant Eyelash’s buoyant single ‘Rubber Traits’. “I guess baring my soul became a natural thing the more I wrote. I grew up as a very shy person and I still deal with issues of shame and low self-confidence, but I’m working on that stuff and getting better at it, hopefully.” As the band grew, so has Yoni confidence in his craft, finding an ability to let his more complex and knotted thoughts become moments of lyrical clarity - and no matter what the subject, even when uncomfortable to speak of, there’s always a sense that Yoni is telling the truth.
“Writing my more difficult thoughts into my lyrics started as a reaction against my shame and I decided to say all these complicated things in my music that I felt unable to say in conversation - now when I write I find that there’s no point in being guarded.” This uneasy-yet-rewarding process is clearly outlined in the tragi-comic splendour of Eskimo Snow’s excellent ‘Into the Shadows Of My Embrace’, where Yoni sings, with arms open, “I know saying all this in public should make me feel funny/But you gotta yell something you could never tell nobody.” “If you have a sense of being guarded in your music or writing or whatever, I find that antithetical to an honest outcome or any kind of truth, in any art form’, expands Yoni, “I think that the purpose of guardedness is something we’ve learned from polite society and wanting to stay separate from one another. I eventually decided that I didn’t want to separate myself from the people around me.”
This unbridled honesty is one of the reasons that WHY? have such a dedicated fanbase who crowd into Bristol’s Thekla to rap Yoni’s bare truths along with him, and dance to the stellar sounds of WHY?’s current live incarnation. “Muscular” isn’t a word I’d usually use to describe WHY?’s recorded output, which is often lush and thoughtful, but live, and with Yoni playing electronic drums alongside his brother’s natural kit, they sound colossal and highly danceable, whilst retaining the nuances found throughout their discography. Audience expectations are riding high until the band take the stage after their 7 year absence from European shores - “We made sure every album was represented by at least one song from Elephant Eyelash onwards - we know it’s been a long time!” Yoni told me earlier in the day - but from the sombre opening chords and clicking percussion of set opener ‘Easy’ onwards, any fears of disappointment are quashed. Moh Lhean is the most represented record tonight - 9 of the record’s 10 tracks are brought to life this evening - and it sounds brilliant, as ‘This Ole King’, and ‘Proactive Evolution’ find an audience singing along in full voice.
Old favourites like ‘Gemini (Birthday Song)’, ‘Strawberries’, ‘These Few Presidents’ and ‘The Vowels Pt. 2’ are received with enthusiasm and rapture by a crowd who’ve been waiting 7 years to hear these tracks live, whether they’re seeing WHY? live again, or, like me, are finally getting to see a band they’ve grown up listening to. The energy and enthusiasm of this Bristol crowd remains constant as the band, clearly thrilled with the reception, leave after an intimate encore of stripped-down numbers, accompanied with banjo by support act Tall Tall Trees. Closing with Alopecia’s beautiful/sinister ‘Simeon’s Dilemma’, sung beautifully by every band member, the band take a bow and promise to return soon, leaving an audience hollering for more.
The sense of closeness between band and audience make me think of my earlier conversation with Yoni around the nature of acceptance of others and about being unguarded: “I think I’ve learned some patience which I didn’t have before whilst writing and creating Moh Lhean. I’ve learned how to sense how I’m feeling more and have also learnt how to feel closer to people, whether it’s important people in my life or just the people around me. As I said, I’m trying.”
Released March 3, 2017