The album’s obscure, fragmented arrangements are initially a point of interest but end up detracting from the whole.
Rapper Yoni Wolf and his abstract-rap project WHY? has evolved from a solo project into a left-of-center-indie-pop band. Their discography has fluctuated between essential and inconsequential, with previous album Moh Lhean their most worthwhile listen since the bar-setting Alopecia. While their newest album, AOKOHIO, feels like a culmination of sorts, written and recorded over the last six years, its short sections feel less like a coherent album and more like a compilation of notes, jotted down and left behind during periods of creativity that yielded more interesting, complete ideas.
The album’s obscure, fragmented arrangements are initially a point of interest but end up detracting from the whole, as pieces feel like they aren’t fully fleshed out or given room to breathe. Some of the most musically expressive moments are given only seconds in comparison to whole minutes of other songs that fail to captivate. On tracks like “Peel Free,” the longest song and one of only a handful of tracks that runs longer than two minutes, Wolf does his best to express somber realizations about his life experience, singing, “I’ve been shaking off a shadow all my life.” But musically, the layered vocals, saxophone interjections and smoky guitar lines don’t make the song especially poignant; the elements simply seem to take up a lot of space.
That isn’t to say that AOKOHIO doesn’t exhibit some worthy experimentation and thematic inquiry. And, despite its 19 tracks, the album comes in at only 33 minutes, which makes it easy to consume all at once even if its inconsistent. It showcases, both musically and lyrically, the type of melodrama that comes naturally with self-reflection, and at its best it features some of the most beautiful moments in WHY?’s discography.
The third section, “Please take me home. I don’t belong here,” is the softest, most emotional and most promising group of vignettes on the album. “The Launch,” with its sorrowful pianos and large vocals and “Good Fire,” with its crying electronics and warm-toned horns, are slow, affecting tracks. These bookend the nostalgically anxious “High Dive” and the intriguing if frustrating “Mr. Fifths’ Plea.”
The fourth and fifth sections of the album are inoffensive but lack any real highlights, with the exception of the bubbling and glittery “The Crippled Physician.” Thankfully, “Bloom Wither Bloom (for Mom),” AOKOHIO’s most complete track, closes the album on the type of high note that lets listeners reflect on what went right here: introspective lyrics about family and home, audio samples from old videos, vocals and shimmering saxophones all come together to build absolutely gorgeous soundscapes without lingering too long on the more underwhelming aspects of its choppy nature.
Ultimately, the problem is that these are just moments. There is a version of AOKOHIO on which WHY? are completely committed, seeing their ideas through to their full potential. Such an album would play like a Proustian meditation on tone, scope and detail; but the album we get never quite goes beyond intermittently compelling scraps.