WHY? – Alopecia (2008)

Why? - Alopecia A quick trip to the dictionary informs me that “alopecia” means “baldness.” It’s an apt term to describe the latest album from Why?; the fear of exposure haunts many of these songs, be it in the man who’s crying in the bathroom in The Vowels, Pt. 2, in the joyful denial of the stalker in Simeon’s Dilemma, in the troubled fantasies of the man in Good Friday who is not quite ready to admit them to his therapist. If this all sounds a bit atypical for a hip hop album, it’s because Why? aren’t your typical hip hop band. Mixing sly, morose narratives that favor personal honesty over glamour with an alternative backdrop that’s sometimes playful and sometimes low-key, Why? have crafted the hip hop album to beat for 2008.

Detractors are likely to point out that there’s not much actual rapping on Alopecia, but the album works as a hip hop album in other ways: it’s got groove, a great sense of rhyme, it’s suggestive, it’s hyperbolic and at times, it’s surprisingly menacing. The album kicks things off with The Vowels, Pt. 2, a song which features all of the aforementioned traits, plus rapping for the hip hop true-believers. While some may be put off by Jonathan Wolf’s thin vocals, those of us familiar with bands like The Mountain Goats will feel right at home. What Wolf lacks in vocal attractiveness, he makes up for with deft lyrics and a steadfast, unapologetic delivery. Most hip hop songs conclude when the lyrics run out, but this isn’t the case for The Vowels, Pt. 2. There’s a two minute musical passage to be played before the song ends (and the chorus appears one more time, soaked in reverb).

Indeed, the best quality of Alopecia is how well the music compliments Wolf’s stories of rocks and hard places. The music usually serves to propel the lyrics forward, and to this end, it works quite well. The sudden swell and immediate retreat that appears near the end of The Hollows perfectly reinforces the narrator’s wise decision to abandon vengeance in a foreign land and count his losses instead. And the keyboard glimmer in the chorus of These Few Presidents (“even though I haven’t seen you in years/your’s is a funeral I’d fly to from anywhere”), makes it even more suggestive. Is it a sweet promise, or is there some bitterness harbored there? Wolf plays the line straight, not saying any more than he needs to; this, coupled with the cryptic lyrics (which mix phrases like “two first names and an ampersand/embroidered proudly on a kitchen towel” and “my crooked Chinese fingers grouped/the machinery of your throat”) leave the song a mesmerizing (if a bit unsettling) one.

The apex of these ideas arrive near the close of the album with Simeon’s Dilemma, a sweet song with lots of bright, major key piano to serve as the backdrop for a tale of obsessive voyeurism that ends in violence (or perhaps it just pretends that it does – either way, it certainly made me do a double take the first time I heard it). The descending piano line increases in intensity here as the lyrics wade into darker and darker territory (going from “but I still hear your name/in wedding bells” and “you’re the only proper noun I need” to the chorus of “stalking’s my whole style/and if I get caught I’ll/deny, deny, deny”), and the song finally concludes with the opening verse turned on it’s head and we find out what the narrator is really holding in his hand (hint: it’s another hand, but not in the way you might be thinking). That Wolf manages to make a song so inherently ugly as pleasant as it is only adds to the allure of Alopecia.

There’s no question that Wolf knows what he’s doing with his music, so it should come as no surprise to see that he knows when to let his songs speak for themselves. That’s why the music in Good Friday is bare and unobtrusive; it’s the perfect place for the narrator to let sin after sin out with a casual indifference. At the center of everything is that fear again, the ever-present uneasiness of being found out. On Alopecia, such a fear is rational to hold; after all, one can only empty the skeletons out of their closet for so long without drawing the attention of the neighbors. To witness such a spectacle is an oddly entrancing one, one that carefully prods the dark corners of our minds for whatever we may be hiding there.

HD RATING: 9.5/10

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One Response to “WHY? – Alopecia (2008)”

  1. […] their latest album, Eskimo Snow (recorded around the same time as last year’s excellent Alopecia) is still quite a bit of a departure for the band. But it also may very well be their greatest […]

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