• Alyssa Collins

Moh Lhean Takes WHY? Back to Their Roots

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Grade: B

For a time, it seemed like WHY? had quietly petered out, retreating back into the fringes after three auspicious records and one off-putting flop. As far as swan songs go, 2012’s Mumps, etc. was far from a triumph, and by the time the Berkeley outfit rolled out 2013’s fan-inspired Golden Tickets, their creative rut had begun to look a lot more like a grave. But four years later, they return fresh and refocused on Moh Lhean, their fifth record and first in four years.

Though described as a “breakup” album, the project doesn’t deal with much in the way of love. Instead, it chronicles a split from the cynical, self-deprecating mindset that underscored the band’s previous work, ushering in a newfound appreciation for life with meditations on being open and accepting and present.

The clarity comes in large part from frontman Yoni Wolf, who underwent an unspecified health scare during writing sessions for the LP. Here, he emerges calm, clear-eyed, and contemplative, lending thought-provoking poetics to reflections on the greater beyond (“The Barely Blur”) and forces outside of his control (“One Mississippi”).

It makes sense, then, that Moh Lhean is also one of WHY?’s most sonically cohesive efforts. Rich drums and lush, layered melodies tie even the most disparate tracks together, from the dreamy, free-floating “This Ole King” to the darkly echoic “The Longing Is All.” Lyrically, Wolf leaps from desperation (“Gasping for exit through unknown air”) to contentment (“Breathe in and out and go easy”), tying things together with subtle callbacks and meta references: I wrote a song called ‘The Longing is All’ instead of calling you/I’d hoped that’d solve me,” he sings on “George Washington.”

Impressively, Moh Lhean’s continuity doesn’t sacrifice any sonic diversity. Departing from the hip-hop oriented melodies that littered their debut album Elephant Eyelash, the record hops from folk (“This Ole King”) to electronic (“Proactive Revolution”) to alt rock (“Easy”), with each standing just as strongly alone as they do as en masse.

Moh Lhean is still as genre-averse as ever, but it shows why the band has always operated best outside of the box. When they blur lines, they blur them well. A brush with mortality probably isn’t the jolt Wolf was hoping for to reignite his career, but when the result is a record that’s this gorgeously abstract, at least it came with a pretty stunning silver lining.

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