On last year’s Alopecia, Yoni Wolf and his Why? project managed to move away from Anticon-patented weirdo alt-rap stylings and into tuneful singer-songwriterdom without losing their edge. Eskimo Snow is a little brother to that album, containing songs recorded during the Alopecia sessions that didn’t make the final cut. But it would be unfair to give Eskimo Snow the label “outtakes album,” if only because it features a mood and aesthetic related to but independent of Alopecia. Here, Wolf the rapper, who appeared in glimpses on the last album, has been totally swept away, making way for Wolf the poetic, introspective singer in the vein of Silver Jews’s David Berman and Red House Painters’s Mark Kozelek. There are sonic distinctions too, as Eskimo Snow is less reliant on electric guitars and other elements of disjointed rock while favoring desert twang, brushstick percussion, and smokey, swiring synthesizers instead.
Wolf still opens up to his audience with an honesty most people reserve for their therapist, but the confessions on Eskimo Snow are more bleeding-heart than those on Alopecia, which were often caked in bitterness and motivated by shock appeal. There’s an abstracted, poetic beauty to lines like “Flowers are how plants laugh” and “Lay me down in a hearseback/It’s where my new best look is at” that matches the tenderness of the melodies well. On gently stirring songs like “These Hands” and “This Blackest Purse,” Why? creeps to the very edge of the earnestly maudlin without falling over. Wolf’s nasally, anxious voice is like that of an ugly puppy who just wants you to love it back, and it’s not too hard to oblige.
The best moments on Eskimo Snow come when Wolf holds on to his characteristic black humor while descending into mellifluousness. “Into the Shadows of My Embrace” manages both a ’60 teen-bop intro and pulsating, star-struck chorus with a joke about being overheard by neighbors while masturbating. “Against Me” captures the heartbreaking prospect of living life alone and unloved with a swelling accompaniment and a typically Wolfian inquiry: “Will all my unused seed collect like mercury, in some kind of afterlife for halves?” In their states of being enthusiastically love-tortured, these songs match the heights of Alopecia, and more than make up for the album’s occasional passages of near-somnolence.
The title song of Eskimo Snow is based upon the notion that just as the Inuits have a legendarily long list of words for snow, so Wolf can come up with an infinity of synonyms for sadness. The guy has certainly proven his adeptness at playing the existential clown, but he should be wary of letting lovesick lethargy become a crutch. Alopecia and Eskimo Snow may be classic examples of beautiful, expressive sad-sackery, but I hope Wolf realizes that there are colors in the rainbow other than black and blue.