“I’ll go unknown by torpedo or Crohn’s / Only those evil live to see their own likeness in stone.” It’s the kind of couplet you’d carve into a wall whilst savoring the irony at hand, but when Yoni Wolf spit the line ten years ago he was blissfully, broodily unaware that he and his band WHY? were creating a career-defining album—one so fan-adored that it would go out of print, and so influential that the art-pop heroine Lorde herself would lovingly steal the very lyric quoted above. When it dropped in 2008, Alopecia not only marked WHY?’s evolution from a sonically collaged mostly solo project to a live-recorded powerhouse band of badass multi-instrumentalists. It also minted a genre of one: wryly written, poignantly posed, simultaneously swaggering and heart-rending song-rap that jangles like folk, bursts like psych-rock, and sways like chamber pop. To this day, there is no other group in the known universe that sounds or feels like WHY? does on Alopecia. The album’s 2018 reissue cheekily etches that aural likeness into our musical history.
Revisiting these songs is like catching up with an old, very strange friend—one who obsesses over his mortality, wonders if his ex is some sort of god, identifies as a “lifelong local foreigner,” and does his emotional unpacking in public restrooms*. When Yoni sings that he’s been “faking suicide for applause in the food courts of malls” on album opener “The Vowels Pt. 2,” you aren’t sure if it’s a metaphor about fame or a real thing he did. Our narrator’s odd charm is Alopecia’s most enduring gift. Inspired by Bob Dylan and Joanna Newsom, Yoni packs confessional candor and vivid detail into honeyed melodies. Energized by Lil Wayne and MF DOOM, he seeds self-effacing boasts and mesmeric wordplay within complex rhyme schemes. The result is a swirl of humor, desperation, and beauty that both pulls us into his world and draws out our own proud, wounded inner weirdo. As Yoni coos on “The Hollows,” “This goes out to dirty-dancing, cursing, backmasking, back-slidden pastors’ kids / and all us Earth growths; some planted, some pulled.”
Alopecia is an album as adventurous as it is accessible, and remarkably fluid. To wit, “These Few Presidents” slides between modes, from upbeat and forced-smile bubbly to seething and slowly roiling. “Song of the Sad Assassin” is a tempo-blind rollercoaster of piano, vibes, vocal percussion, guitar, drum, and bass. And “Twenty Eight” spins a feedback-drenched rap beat, something like the Bomb Squad on acid, on a carousel. WHY?’s mind meld is all the more impressive considering they left their jerry-rigged home setup for Minneapolis’ Third Ear studio, in the winter, and added Fog members Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson to the lineup. Over 20 days, the thermometer never cracked zero. There were hot toddies aplenty, Miles Davis records on repeat, and cramped quarters. In this heady, unfamiliar space, Yoni worried it was all for naught. But while recording “Good Friday,” a brutal breakup song, he caught full-body chills. It wasn’t the blizzard outside.