After making a statement in the form of a tangled concept-ish album, complete with accompanying graphic novel, on 2017’s Boy in a Well, the Yawpers turn inward on the follow-up. This time, singer and guitarist Nate Cook intended the songs to serve less as narrative and more as therapy, he says in the press notes for Human Question. So, how does that work out?
Better than it might seem, on the whole. Cook, guitarist Jesse Parmet and drummer Alex Koshak are nimble players who careen confidently through different sounds and styles, though they’re at their best on stuff that combines taut musical tension with snappy hooks on rough-edged songs with plenty of heart. They nail it on opener “Child of Mercy” with a sleek guitar line and a hypnotic beat contrasting with chugging, overdriven guitar that takes over on the middle eight. “Reason to Believe” has a garage-blues vibe thanks to a gritty guitar lick that smolders just below Cook’s voice, and even a corny forced rhyme involving the word “oeuvre” can’t wreck the vibe. An elastic riff lends a dark majesty to dreamy vocals on the title track, while jangling guitars and super-catchy harmony vocals give “Can’t Wait” a scruffy charm reminiscent of the Replacements circa Pleased to Meet Me (Tommy Stinson co-produced Boy in a Well, so, y’know).
Not every song is so well calibrated. As you might expect from a band built around guitars, Cook and Parmet sometimes get carried away with pyrotechnic displays that come at the expense of the song. “Dancing on My Knees” and “Earn Your Heaven” both fall victim to riffage for the sake of riffage, churning away without really going anywhere. Though “Forgiveness Through Pain” has a sleek and powerful surface, there’s more style at work in the greasy riffs and call-and-response guitar interplay than there is underlying substance. “Where the Winters End” has the opposite problem: one of a handful of subdued tunes on the album, the tune plays like a benediction, but the good wishes get lost in a dull arrangement. “Carry Me” is the better quiet song, with a mix of guitars, piano and a subtle snare-drum pattern building slowly beneath vocals from Cook that start as a mumble and grow more soulful and robust, until he’s shrieking the refrain as a blowsy, honking sax solo comes ripping through. That’s the song that feels truly therapeutic, or at least cathartic—it’s like Cook is working things out in real time while the rest of us bear witness. “Carry Me” is also one of the few songs on the album that’s not some form of guitar workout. It’s worth noting that the band’s emphasis on songcraft, on making a point, pays off in a way that not every track here does.