Chaz Bundick turns his restless dissatisfaction into artistic fuel on Toro y Moi's psychedelic fourth album.
Ever since the genre was given its tongue-in-cheek moniker, people were waiting for the other shoe to drop for chillwave. Instead of some tumultuous meltdown, though, the genre’s defining artists just fluttered away silently from their bedroom-producer origins. Tellingly, they all moved in the same direction, embracing expansive, lush sounds in its wake: Washed Out gave us the heady, rhapsodic Paracosm, Neon Indian stepped out with a less dingy synthpop sound on Era Extraña, and Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick, restlessly experimenting with where he could go since the project’s 2010 debut, concocted What For?
The artistic dissatisfaction Bundick has felt these last few years has been all but palpable. Toro y Moi’s spaced-out, ephemeral 2013 album Anything in Return preempted the simple dance flair of Bundick’s Les Sins side project and its 2014 debut Michael, two sidelong steps from the path he’d charted previously. Now Toro y Moi returns with What For?, a psychedelic rock fantasy that once again finds Bundick feeling his way around unfamiliar territory in an attempt to get comfortable, primarily latching onto the indie pop movements of the Apples in Stereo and the blue-eyed soul sounds of Hall and Oates in an approximation of the smooth garage rock ethos of Tame Impala. It’s a bold transition in the context of Toro y Moi’s history, but hardly a unique one.
Bundick let indecisiveness and doubt unintentionally invade his music some time ago, but What For? marks the first time that he’s embraced it as artistic fuel, reconciling his anxiety with a focused musical approach and an empowering sense of self-reflection at the heart of the album. Bundick’s lyrics are laced with overwhelming, unanswerable questions: “Does anyone know where we go from here?” he asks on the opening track, “What You Want”. On single “Empty Nesters”, he considers the role of individuality in young adult life: “Did you meet with your advisors? / Do you still draw in the margins?” “Buffalo”, in which Bundick vents his disillusionment with music from a third-person perspective, emphasizing the feeling of distance, is most damning: “Someone took away his microphone / Pushed him off the stage ‘til he’s on his own… / Cash in when the time is right.” Even the album’s title suggests that uncertainty is Bundick’s heaviest burden these days.
The music is far less hesitant in its mood -- light but not frivolous -- but still tied to the morose contemplation of Bundick’s lyrics. He buoys the guitars with sticky choruses and phasers, giving his airy melodies a vast, stormy undercurrent that pairs nicely with his hazy inner turmoil. The electronic dance textures of Michael and early Toro y Moi releases are replaced with guitar pop simplicity, emboldened with layered effects and deepened with reverb. Bundick toys with disco-pop on “Spell It Out”, but instead of his signature floaty synthesizers, the song springs to life from funky guitars and even swims into a guitar solo bridge. Bundick’s aptitude for softly sung refrains is the constant, a foundation for his stylistic experiments. Even on songs where he mostly emits a dull moan like “Half Dome”, the waves of melody floating under him from the fuzzy bass and guitar keep it active until the gentle wash of the chorus. For all the changes he’s made, his talents are still mostly in the foreground on What For?
The great thing about Bundick is that he can do a lot of things and do them well, but before he gives himself the chance to master something, his restlessness always carries him off to another world. What For? is about as successful a transplant as he can make into a fresh setting. If nothing else, Bundick is at least acknowledging his nervous wayfaring with What For? It’s his weariest sounding record, perhaps indicating that he’s finally searching for a place to settle down. With the immediacy and focus he’s found now, maybe he’ll just take his time.
Splash image of Toro Y Moi by Andrew Paynter.