Modern music is a confusing landscape. With so much innovation, the boundaries of what we once felt comfortable with have blurred. Obviously, it’s natural that as a listener we need to make sense of it all, to process and file every sonic sub-genre, cataloging our music collection, pinning our butterflies.
However, as an artist at the forefront of a movement those labels can be a weighty mantle to bear if you let them anchor you down. More acts fail to break free of their defining moments than those who transcend them, they just become ‘that *insert zeitgeist here* act’. For many, Chaz Bunwick, (more widely recognized under his Spanish/French hybrid moniker Toro Y Moi) is ‘that chillwave act’.
For the uninitiated, chillwave was an electro-sub-pop, micro-genre from a few years ago. Exemplified by drowned synths, looping beats and simple melodies, which evoke sequencers and sun-bleached beaches. Proponents of the genre included Washed Out, Com Truise and Neon Indian, along with Toro Y Moi and a handful of others who comfortably fit this easy definition at the time. Although time has shown that Bundwick had other intentions for his career.
If these intentions were less evident on his glacial debut Causers of This, it became more obvious in his sophomore release. Under the Pines echoed his previous work, but infused it with soulful leanings and a crystalline dusting of pop. To some this album came as a disappointment, pushing beyond his early work and heading towards something more mainstream, disowning a genre he had unwittingly created.
With that in mind we arrive at the release of Anything in Return, which Bundwick had touted would be his most populist work to date. To an extent this is true, and while it doesn’t have a total pop aesthetic, it walks a tightrope between his past and his future.
The first four tracks might be up there with some of his most interesting work. “Harm in Change” and “Say That” tip their hat to deep house with catchy piano hooks, cut and paste samples and infinitely danceable basslines. Meanwhile, “So Many Details” and “Rose Quartz” shudder with bleeps, squelches and loops as synth riffs rise and fall in the background. Further high points include “Studies” with it’s falsetto vocals and soulful grooves and “Grown Up Calls”, a track that hints towards the work of a young Pharrell Williams and is a marked progression from Bundwick’s previous outings, both lyrically and vocally. Most surprising is the alarmingly populist “Cake”, it’s the closest the album gets to pure chart fodder, and whilst it may be derided by established fans as conjuring up images of Bieber-esque dance routines and slick Swedish production, it succeeds by virtue of being one of the most fully realized tracks on the album.
It seems that Toro Y Moi is an artist pioneering his own sound, working in a state of transition, innovating without concern for labels, making something that is truly of the moment. Whilst this process may feel scattergun, jarring and at times disposable, some might call it evolution.
This is important, because if there is an inherent problem, it’s the hovering question mark over when the freewheeling ramble through Bundwick’s musical consciousness will draw focus. While admirably brimming with inspiration, tracks like “Cola” or “Touch” lead nowhere, running into a musical cul de sac. Specifically incongruous are the three tracks that close out the album: “Day One”, “Never Matter” and “How’s It Wrong”. All could have easily been cut to make this a tighter and more even handed affair. As it is, they are neither fish nor fowl, just half sketched-out ideas that feel tacked on to make the album reach its near-hour-long running time.
Undoubtedly, Anything in Return shakes off easy definition, but all too often this is because it allows aimless beats to collide in a hazy pop patchwork, leaving something that runs high on atmospherics and low on actual substance. Proving that one man’s alt-pop experimentation can be another man’s filler.
Despite this, Anything in Return is hard to not to recommend. In a way it echos Bundwick’s stage moniker — a hybrid, never less than intriguing but somewhat hollow on closer inspection. By trimming away the self-indulgent fat this uneven and overlong work might have been a landmark for Toro Y Moi. Instead it’s just another step in the path of of an interesting career.