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Why? - Eskimo Snow

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Artist: Why?

Album: Eskimo Snow

Label: Anticon

Review date: Sep. 22, 2009

Eskimo Snow arrives on the same train of thought that brought us last year’s Alopecia – both were written and recorded over the same period, and elaborate the same knotty relationship with mortality – but it’s smaller, darker, more obsessively intimate by a long shot. No veneer of abstraction or altruism here, no space for anything or anybody but Yoni Wolf, a character whose contours and psychopathologies are honed into ever sharper relief. Not a stitch of rap, either, but it’s hard to miss it at this point – Wolf has only gotten better since he trial-separated from backpack-hop and took up with the slanted, enchanted pop song. Eskimo Snow doesn’t estrange the two permanently, just dwells on a part of Why? that’s no less integral for having almost nothing to do with the leftfield hipness of the Clouddead pedigree.

Does it work? Of course it works. Wolf is the best unreliable narrator this side of David Berman or John Darnielle or pre-midlife Slug, and it’s a privilege and a pleasure as always to be let inside his head. But it’s also a little scary to be there now, a little unclear why we’re allowed in and very much unclear how to get back out. Even the most anodyne details on Eskimo Snow hook back to death (or to sex, which then hooks back to death). Decay is not only inevitable but the unifying logic of the album inside and out, the way it makes sense of the world. “A man should die gaunt / Not bloated and overdone,” Wolf begins in “One Rose.” “There should be new words hidden in the shadows on his face / And like a wine glass, in a perfect pitch he breaks.”

This is hardly a new preoccupation, just a new intensity for it. Elephant Eyelash and Alopecia were plenty morbid, but they were also generous: darkly funny (“Will I look better or will I look the same rotting in hell?”) or poignant (“And the Monterey birches were bare, raising their skinny arms to the stars in surrender”) or twistedly sweet (“Yours is a funeral I’d fly to from anywhere”). By focusing so narrowly on profoundly personal anxieties, Eskimo Snow excludes the universality that used to let us connect and identify with Wolf. It excludes us. The further the narrator of these songs moves from a befoibled everyman toward a singular, guileless, brutally honest and brilliantly solipsistic character, the blurrier the line gets between entertainment and therapy, roleplay and neurosis, participation and trespassing.

Given those earlier albums’ patchwork approach to their central themes, some of the shock here is simply hearing all of these songs packaged together – songs which, despite their obvious musical affinity, are so unified in their gloominess as to be almost stifling. The band, agile as ever in cautious Americana mode, lends the album an unhurried, sometimes deceptive simplicity that reins in those moments that seem at first like outlying caricatures: the pervy despair of “Into the Shadows of My Embrace,” the maudlin self-doubt of “This Blackest Purse.” It would be legitimate to call Eskimo Snow Why?’s most focused album yet; it just wouldn’t make the nature of the focus any less unsettling.

What is the nature of the focus, then? For all his clever self-awareness – he wonders one moment whether he’s “too concerned with the burn of scrutiny,” brags the next that “the world is my lit confessional marquee” – Wolf doesn’t illuminate much beyond the borders of each meditation. Whether Eskimo Snow is the product of a passing fascination with mortality or a public bid for personal catharsis ultimately makes little difference; the only sense in which it’s even our business is that he’s no longer narrating for us as well, no longer saying what we’re all too bashful or unobservant or boring to think. These are his words for sadness, heavy and multiple “like Eskimo snow on unmanned crosses,” not ours.

And that’s either a relief or a disappointment, depending on how much of yourself you want to see in someone who wears his ex-girlfriend’s dead ex-boyfriend’s boxers and jerks off in art museum johns and doesn’t know what to call his shady compulsions because he messed up and kissed his shrink in a Jersey City hotel room. “That’s right,” he sneers in the clumsily elegant death-ramble “Against Me,” “I’m like everybody else is: ashamed of sleep, I lie when a phone call wakes me.” The immediate inconsistency of Eskimo Snow is its failure to support that claim – Yoni Wolf isn’t like everybody else at all. The lingering one is that it’s starting to sound like his singularity is as much a curse to him as it is a blessing to us.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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