Those who have followed WHY?’s trajectory over the years — from hip-hop abstractionism to heady avant-folk — won’t be surprised by the familiar feel of Jet Lag, the solo debut of WHY? drummer Josiah Wolf. What might surprise some people, though, is how huge a role the elder Wolf has obviously played in that band’s transformation. Sole’s recent departure from Anticon opens an easy window for critics to talk about how far the label has departed from its rap roots, and Wolf’s album could be the prime example for those arguments. There is nothing remotely hip-hop about this record; unfortunately, there’s nothing too interesting either.
Wolf’s voice sounds alternately like The Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, depending on the intensity of the song; more often than not, it’s the latter. In fact, much of the album sounds straight out of the indie rock 90s, all slacker folk-y and politely cynical. The album starts out promisingly enough, with opener “The Trailer and the Truck” employing bells and vibes, layered and lush. It’s the most upbeat track of the album, but it’s misleading. Jet Lag, as the press release makes abundantly clear, is a depressing fucking record. It was written following the dissolution of a lengthy relationship — Wolf uses “jet lag” in this instance as a sort of extended metaphor for the post-traumatic stress one might experience after such harrowing change. The last line of “Trailer” sets the stage for the album’s melancholy: “But then there was this flood/ And when we finally came out from the mud/ With the trailer and the truck/ I just got stuck.”
And then — well, Wolf just gets stuck. The songs on this record rehash the same self-loathing sentiments over and over again. On “The Apart Meant,” there’s ”It’s bad to not know how to care/ But to know how not to care.” On “That Kind of Man,” there’s “Everything that flowers soon will end.” This is bleak stuff, and it’s generally not all that remarkable. Though the album’s instrumentation is often vibrant, Wolf’s fixation on the same sad-sack sentiments engenders a listless musical milieu. Folks like Dave Berman have walked these paths for years, but Wolf’s poetry isn’t as incisive; they’re mostly clumsy and overreaching. Where Berman might sneer out a pithy one-liner aimed at a cheating ex, Wolf gets lost in tepid mumbling, the musical equivalent of the guy at the end of the bar staring forlornly into his whiskey. Not to belabor the Silver Jews comparisons, as they inevitably will be pervasive in reviews of Jet Lag, but it goes to show how much better Berman is at this sort of thing.
All that said, the album does contain its share of worthwhile moments. There’s the unexpected melodic twist in “In the Seam,” where Wolf, with a sudden spark of newfound realism, intones, “Julie, Julie/ You move right through me” in a moment that’s quietly exhilarating. There’s a similarly magnificent moment in the gentle, ambling chorus of “Master Cleanse (California).” Indeed, Wolf is clearly a capable songwriter and even a good one when he manages to breach the trappings of his own claustrophobic psyche, but the breakup record is not something everyone can do well. Perhaps, at heart, Wolf just isn’t a miserable enough person to pull it off convincingly. I bet once he cheers up, he’ll deliver something great.