By deviating from the successful indie nerd-rap formula that made both 2005's Elephant Eyelash and 2008's Alopecia so memorable, Why?'s third album, Eskimo Snow, managed to be both a step forward and a step back, pushing the band into more eccentric directions, but also alienating some fans. Conversely, the band's new album, Mumps, Etc., finds Yoni Wolf and company re-embracing the past glories of their earlier work without sounding tired or repetitive.
The stark sadness and isolation that comprised much of Eskimo Snow's icy aesthetic is all but vanquished on Mumps, Etc., a nimble, sleek album filled with unshielded self-reflection. The yearning yet meditative expressiveness of the album's first two tracks, "Jonathan's Hope" and "Strawberries," introduces a freshly buoyant Wolf: "Itching like an intern with a sunburn/For what a stone unturned covers/I don't wear rubbers and I don't wear sunscreen/I want to heat my hide, not hide under something." In addition, there's an adventurousness and confidence to the music on Mumps, Etc., from the featherweight, sparkling guitars on "Bitter Thoughts" to the dreamy harps on "Waterlines" and the leisurely trumpets on the ska-infused "White English."
There's a few dawdling missteps on Mumps, Etc., though, and they prove that Wolf and his brother Josiah still aren't as harmoniously in sync as they were during the halcyon days of Elephant Eyelash. Every so often the ambitiousness of the music overshadows the looser, almost wispy vocals, leading to an overall feeling of muted enthusiasm. At one point during the otherwise comical "Thirst," the song's argument begins to collapse on itself, Wolf's agitated outrage clashing with the rest of the album's jubilation: "G4 motherboards with '90s porn in their cache, and barber's trash mixed in with the light-floating paper-ration rest/No fleeting omen for your eyes, only waiting."
Still, Mumps, Etc. is an assured, thematically united set. The album closes strongly with the introspective breakup song "Paper Hearts" and the short but sweet farewell poem "As a Card," wherein Wolf sneers at his own ascension to success. Mumps, Etc. isn't a career-defining moment like Alopecia, but it's a celebratory return to form for Why?, reuniting the band with the key attributes that ignited their creativity in the first place.