As many eye-rolls as it may engender, it’s important to address that particularly chill and wavy elephant in the room, because as much as Chaz Bundick rejected chillwave and the other artists that were tagged with the moniker, its history provides a valid reference for Bundick’s work as Toro y Moi. And it’s important to get it out of the way, because with his third record, Anything in Return, he consciously moves even further away from the aesthetics of the short-lived microgenre he helped accidentally pioneer.
Bundick’s attempts to distance himself from the hazy, nostalgic atmospherics associated with the genre pushed his second record, Underneath the Pines, into richer territory. That forward movement continues on Anything in Return, as the project delves further down the kaleidoscopic hole of genre influences that have spiced Bundick’s past two releases, staking out territory in the middle ground between Pines and his 2011 EP Freaking Out.
In the first three tracks alone, you can find hints of trance and house, R&B and funk, pop and rock. Later, “Studies” mixes a rhythm straight out of ’90s-era hip-hop with a melodic structure that recalls pre-Hissing Fauna of Montreal. And “Grown Up Calls” is a fractured pop gem that recalls both Kanye West and WHY?.
Bundick is an artist of synthesis, and his music operates best when the stitches don’t show, like on the sub-zero groove of “Say That” or sub-frequency flow of the appropriately liquid “Cola”. It’s moments like these that are the most enjoyable, because they’re the songs that fully demonstrate Bundick’s complete skill set.
But sometimes it seems like the aversion to that whole chillwave thing hurts Bundick. He seems so conscious of avoiding any hints of that now-passé sound that he ends up making some missteps. Exploring new genres is what has given Toro y Moi life beyond the buzzword, but some of these explorations come off either half-cocked or half-hearted. Case in point: “Cake”, which is merely a Max Martin touch-up away from being a One Direction track. It’s not enough of a car crash to be gawked at, but its obvious bubblegum influences play poorly against the track’s spacier leanings.
Aside from the handful of highlights — those first three tracks in particular — much of the rest of Anything in Return suffers from no other crime than being largely unremarkable. One of the risks of trafficking in “atmospherics” is that the tempos and dynamics implied by such a term are largely similar, and largely forgettable. Even after multiple listens, I have to check track listings to tell which track is “Rose Quartz” and which track is “High Living”.
It’s not that Bundick doesn’t display talent on these tracks — he does. It’s simply that sometimes those stitches show, rather than blending as seamlessly as on his best work. And it’s entirely possible that being willing to incorporate some of the vintage photo blurs of his earliest work would have smoothed over some of those rough edges.
While Anything in Return might be the most consistent of any of his records up to this point, it lacks the punch to break through. Instead, it’s just another indicator of incremental progress. That’s understandable; chillwave was a transient genre from its onset, trafficking in a nostalgia that was only charming to a point. To avoid the same fate, Bundick had to move past it. But the outright rejection of those markers displayed on Anything in Return seems like a case of selective memory, and it’s a memory from which the record could have learned.
Essential Tracks: “Say That”, “Cola”
Feature artwork by Tim Lukowiak: