Poetry was once defined as words organized into metered lines. Somewhere along the line, rhyme became another important factor, and if you ask a seven-year-old what a poem is today, he’ll probably tell you, “Something that rhymes.” But these once firm distinctions have now become optional. Meter, rhyme? Sure, but only if you want. The advent of prose poems has made even line division unnecessary, and the term “poetic” is ever more frequently used to describe the writing of non-poets such as John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Since history has discarded all past definitions of poetry, I offer this one: writing which pinpoints the exact truth of feelings and events.
Why? frontman Yoni Wolf is a poet. “I wanna speak at an intimate decibel,” he sings on “This Blackest Purse, “With the precision of an infinite decimal/To listen up and send back a true echo/Of something forever felt, but never heard.” This is what he does: write songs about the thoughts and feelings others could never quite put into words.
Wolf is often lauded for his wit, but Eskimo Snow is less funny than it is sad. The outright humor of previous albums is largely gone; what remains is a joy in the sound of the words twisting together. Yoni Wolf began his career in the world of hip-hop, and though Eskimo Snow is his first completely rapless project, he still sings like a rapper, rejoicing in the feeling of the letters on his lips. What’s most different is the sound, now a full embracement of the indie pop hinted at by 2008’s Alopecia. At times, the weighty sadness of the content without the old sound’s relieving weirdness makes the album feel a little hollow: I miss the coin percussion of “The Vowels, Pt. 2,” the electronic swirls of “Yo Yo Bye Bye,” the robotic romp of “These Few Presidents.” Most of all, I miss the rap, which is what once solidified Why? as something wholly unique. The band needs no gimmick, now, but it was still a great element, and one I hope they will not abandon entirely.
On the other hand, Eskimo Snow reveals a new depth to the band. Ever genre-defying, Why? has traded in its hip-hop roots for bits of soulful country (“Even the Good Wood Gone,” “Into the Shadows of My Embrace”) and finger-picked folk (“One Rose,” “Eskimo Snow”). Band cohesion has never been better, and though the songs are musically less interesting than they have been, the seriousness of the sound may win over fans for whom previous albums were just too weird.
Taken on its own terms, this is a phenomenal album — heartfelt and lyrically brilliant. Yoni Wolf confesses all his thoughts and feelings with wit and astonishing indiscretion, from self-doubt (“Am I too concerned with the burn of scrutiny?”) to loneliness (“I wish I could feel close to somebody/But I don’t feel nothin’”) to fantastic fears (“Will all my unused seed/Collect like mercury/In some kind of afterlife for halves?”). His writing is simultaneously academic and banal: yes, he sings about existential despair, but he also sings about masturbation. Some call him over confessional, even perverse; I think he’s just honest. Everyone thinks things they’d rather not admit. Wolf is just brave enough to air his. And it’s comforting to hear another’s fears, because it shows you you’re not alone. “I know saying all this in public should make me feel funny,” he cries on “Into the Shadows of My Embrace, “but you gotta yell something out you never tell nobody!” We’re lucky to have this, a poet to make art of his despair. There’I don’t know how else we’d survive.