The emotional high point of Why?'s latest EP, Sod in the Seed, comes near the close of the third song, "The Plan." After a line addressing the fun one can have in planning for one's own death ("Or plan none/ And leave it to the whims of your unborn little one"), the shuffling typewriter beat and rich piano bars begin to swell, and a churchy organ sound that recalls the one Al Kooper played on Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" begins spinning out into the atmosphere. Then everything falls away, and frontman Yoni Wolf's echo-laden self-harmony begins the song's stirring final verse, one both gorgeous and grotesque: "All the small tools/ For an heirloom pocket watch/ And the watch kept warm and working/ In a raw skank's crotch."
"Rock skank's crotch," Wolf corrects me via phone from his home in Cleveland, where he's packing for a tour.
Oh, like a crackhead?
"No, no, like in the '80s, hanging out in the parking lot waiting for Stryper to come out," he clarifies again with a laugh before trying to explain lyrics he hasn't entirely figured out himself. "She's hiding this precious time-keeper in her womb, essentially. It's about death, I guess. The whole song is about death. It's about not dwelling on it."
But death, and our attempts to trivialize it, have long been themes Wolf has labored over. On 2008's Alopecia, the Anticon Records co-founder and MC-turned-frontman sings, "I sleep on my back because it's good for the spine and coffin rehearsal." On the band's most recent LP, Eskimo Snow, he addresses life and death from the perspective of a reawakened pharaoh in a museum: "Left not even with my death mask on/ Heart and other organs missing for so long/ Features faded and dated in estimation/ And even the good wood gone."
"I'm not morose. I'm not goth or anything like that," Wolf insists. And he's right. Why?'s music addresses death in the same fashion it addresses everything else: with a sense of humor and deep well of feeling. On Sod in the Seed, Wolf's self-effacing humor collides with hip-hop bravado (perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek at this point) and a savant's eye for detail. The trend continues on forthcoming full-length Mumps, Etc., the sometimes impenetrably verbose full-length that will see release in October. The disc, more cluttered but also more direct than Why?'s last, occasionally finds Wolf returning to his MC roots after a hiatus from rapping on albums. Its lyrics remain as vivid—and, sometimes, as confounding—as ever.
"As far as where the ideas spawn from, I really don't know," Wolf says. He doesn't read a lot of books, he says, and he's not "a digger," obsessing over rare records like some of his bandmates. He occasionally gets ideas from TV shows or movies, but more often, inspiration strikes at inopportune times, so Wolf draws from piles of receipts, show fliers and envelopes with verses scribbled on their backs to glean new material. "It's when something touches me deeply or it's funny to me," he says. "But in some way, it has to touch the tender part of me for me to want to go forward with it."
Wolf's tenderness, which seeps through his nasal and half-spoken vocal delivery even during his songs' ugliest or most sarcastic passages, plays beautifully against his band's meticulously crafted sound. In the seven years since Wolf turned his avant-hip-hop project into a full "rock band"—with Wolf's brother Josiah on drums and keys, plus multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid—Why? seldom chooses to rock out. Instead, the recorded fare seems constructed by a pint-sized orchestra with boners for Massive Attack and Wes Anderson soundtracks. Sparkly, minimal instrumentation—bells, marimba, vibes and exotic percussion—elbows electric guitar nearly all the way out of the frame. This is tidy music, something Wolf says is integral to his character. "I used to hold my poop in when I was a kid," he admits. "It's all related. I don't like a mess. I like things neat and clean."
But on this afternoon, Wolf is feeling less concerned about space than usual. "Bring everything, I'd say," he hollers to an unnamed tourmate in his kitchen. âEverythingâs just gonna go bad.â
SEE IT: Why? plays Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell St., on Saturday, Sept. 1. 9 pm. $15. All ages.