It didn’t take long for chillwave to become a punchline after its rapid ascendancy in the late 2000s, and it must have been tough to be Toro y Moi (the alias of producer Chaz Bear, fka Chaz Bundwick), an act known synonymously, and perhaps unfairly so, with the genre. One of the first genres born almost entirely out of the influence of the Internet, chillwave was quickly deemed too easily replicable and far too reliant on provoking cultural nostalgia.
But a few proprietors of the sound, like Toro, Ernest Greene’s Washed Out and Alan Palomo’s Neon Indian, rose above the flack to acclaim and, for better or for worse, bore high expectations for crafting a fresh sound moving forward. All three have, to varying degrees, managed to endure as mutable and relevant artists. For Toro y Moi, it was his popular single “Blessa” back in 2009 and then his second full-length Underneath the Pine two years later that established an eminent chillwave fame and promised potential for songcraft beyond the bounds of simplistic genre labels.
Since, Toro y Moi has put out four more LPs showcasing sounds indebted to his roots, but also funk, hip-hop, and indie rock. His latest, Outer Peace, adheres most closely to pure, groovy dance music, although some songs sound undeniably like contemporary R&B. The record opens on the infectious “Fading”, which only references chillwave lyrically (“Everything is fading, fading, fading / Guess I gotta have that faith in, faith in,” Bear sings). There’s nothing particularly “chill” about the track, with its relentless, throbbing disco beat and yelping falsetto, but it does feel effortless and smooth, as though it could light up the dancefloor and soundtrack a trip to the local strip mall. The following tracks, including the single “Ordinary Pleasure”, follow a similar formula, marrying Bear’s sighing, disaffected vocals with some of the funkiest beats the producer has ever made.
The record shifts with “Miss You”, a slow, R&B-inflected track featuring the singer Abra that calls back to the trippy, lo-fi aesthetic of his earlier years. “New House” is pure hip-hop, with a crackling beat at its center and lyrics that allude to the alienating tendencies of cities and consumer culture (“I want a brand new house / Something I cannot buy, something I can’t afford,” goes the song’s recurring hook) while “Baby Drive it Down” sounds like Drake-lite, and not in the most complimentary of ways. Bundick’s voice is effective, but not strong enough on its own to warrant a chilled out serenade of this caliber.
The record comes back into focus, though, with “Freelance”, which is Outer Peace‘s first single and obvious thematic centerpiece. Featuring the most inspired vocal modifications on the record (Bear sings “walk on the water -ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah- for me”, the extra vowels unfolding as if stuck on a loop), the song is also its strongest bid toward social criticism. The words on Outer Peace are often ambiguous but widely evocative, but “Freelance” channel’s a generation’s professional anxiety into a subtly rendered anthem. “Nothing’s ever worse than work unnoticed / Freelance now, yeah I guess you earned it,” he sings, using the word “earned” as a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to the glorified trendiness of the gig economy. The record’s cover, which shows Bear sitting on an exercise ball in front of a laptop, seems to mock the hip strivings of the modern workforce too, with moody oranges and pinks acting as familiar tonal markers of bliss and zen. It’s in this sense that the standout track also presents Toro y Moi at his most political, even without many specific references pinning down the record to a tangible moment.
The broad appeal of these songs is a strength as far as Outer Peace goes, but the imprecise language and the inability to invoke a larger cultural significance outside of a few notable tracks doesn’t bode especially well for Toro’s longevity. He’s always been and will continue to be a chameleon when it comes to sounds and genres, and yet without the powerful shield of chillwave acclaim that characterized his early releases, Bear’s music increasingly depends on an ability to stand out on its own. At just 30 minutes, the new record doesn’t feel ambitious enough to meet this mark, especially because several of the songs feel pulled directly from the same sonic and lyrical impulse.
Rounding out the end of the record are songs emblematic of this issue: “Who Am I” is effectively disillusioned, but mostly repurposes the numb affectation of previous tracks into new territory; “Monte Carlo” mimics the rap-influenced songwriting of “New House” with a minimalistic feature from indie pop group Wet; “50-50” is reminiscent of the kind of churning, propulsive electronic R&B championed by the Weeknd. These are accomplished songs (“50-50” closes out the record with its most overtly emotional performance), and yet like the rest of the record, they don’t quite transcend any of the strongest work Toro y Moi has made to date. Also worth noting is the fact that none of the songs last for longer than four minutes, which wouldn’t be a problem if they were collectively stronger, but as is they feel occasionally airless and overproduced.
None of this is to say that Chaz Bear’s new music isn’t worth listening to, or that his experimentations across genres don’t still have an influence on songcraft in general. Outer Peace is the work of a veteran producer and as such it’s tempting to gloss over technical proficiency in search of something transcendent. The new record doesn’t meet those high expectations, but it does successfully elongate the wide-spanning influence of a producer a decade into his career.