Individual emotional reactions to music are difficult to trace or predict. We filter music through the lenses of our own experiences and dispositions, and we construct personal, idiosyncratic meanings for any given work of art. Despite the uncertainty this lends to interpretation, popular music relies on the assumption that there are some consistent and even predictable ways that humans in a certain cultural context react to musical motifs. Perhaps due to some odd quirk in our temporal lobes, certain melodies are all but guaranteed to become earworms, and certain beats have the divine power to make large swaths of people burst into dance. Chord progressions in a major key put us into an optimistic disposition, whereas a minor key can sway us toward bitterness and dread.
It is this last truth in which TOY place a great deal of faith on their third album, Clear Shot. The Brighton, UK band draws on Britpop, psychedelic rock, and occasional (though oft-overstated) homages to shoegaze to create technically proficient rock music shrouded in gloom. They know how to cast a dark veneer over their audience, milking those minor keys again and again to create a foreboding and vaguely menacing atmosphere. Mood is first and foremost here; there are plenty of theoretically astute musical movements to be found, but they feel incidental and secondary to the larger purpose of drawing you into TOY’s brooding storm cloud. Herein lies the challenge for Clear Shot, though: can the album create and express a mood profoundly and authentically enough to touch and move the listener, or will it content itself merely in depressing the affective centers of the brain for 51 minutes?
At times, the five-piece is able to do more than simply manipulate our emotional hardware with musical trickery. Clear Shot is ironically best at its sunniest moments, allowing the shadows only to blur the edges of dreams rather than take over entirely. “Clouds that Cover the Sun”, the clearest and best tribute to bands like Slowdive on here, conveys a disoriented, uncertain, and ultimately false carefreeness. It sounds like riding a carousel on a spring day, wanting to have a good time but feeling slightly nauseous. “There must be a way to wipe out the memory…whirling around in my periphery,” lead singer Tom Dougall sighs as the band takes us on a seasick ride through subtle emotional vicissitudes. “Clouds” relies on an old and familiar trick, belying cheerful pop psychedelia with darker lyrics, but it’s one of the most effective and memorable tracks here. The bittersweet and poppy “Another Dimension” finds success employing a similar tension, with a keyboard refrain that will get stuck in your head more than anything else on the album.
Elsewhere, TOY commit less to writing straightforward pop songs and more to loftier rock expressionism, with very mixed results. “Fast Silver” keeps with the psychedelic feel but synthesizes it with anxious, seedy blues-rock. It does indeed convey a sense of grittiness and dread, making for an uncomfortable listen that makes you feel like you’ve wound up on the wrong side of the “railroad track” alluded to in the lyrics. The problem is that the song does little more than superficially suggest an image. It makes no commentary on what all this means, not for us and not for Dougall, who sings about “find[ing] my way back home” without ever illustrating what “home” is or why it’s important to make it back there. In places like this, Dougall’s vocal style becomes a hindrance rather than a tool: he mumbles like a teenager trying to sound cool, attempting to communicate darkness without ever actually making himself vulnerable and exposing his own emotions. Similarly, “Spirits Don’t Lie” is as doom-and-gloom as it gets here, but it is difficult to locate any kind of core or source from which its alleged darkness stems. For this reason, many of the songs on Clear Shot vanish without a trace once their allotted time has been spent.
Many great albums traffic primarily in moods and immersion, and do not necessarily show their whole hand to the listener. It is not as though TOY’s ambitions were misguided from the start, then. In order for a mood-driven album to be successful, though, it has to suggest powerful currents of emotion flowing just underneath or in the periphery. Even if an ambiguous and superficial “mood” is all we are given directly, a compelling album creates suggestions that don’t just stimulate our bare emotions, but also provoke our imagination and curiosity. It embraces subjectivity and personal interpretation rather than relying solely on predictable reactions. In this regard, TOY’s latest release comes up short. The black cloak is there, but the body and the flesh underneath go undetected. Clear Shot makes few indentations and leaves few fingerprints behind; any temporary effect it had on your mood can be quickly wiped away and replaced by whatever music you choose to listen to next.
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