Music Reviews
What For?

Toro & Moi What For?

(Carpark) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Change can be the marker of creative progression, but it can also be a bottomless pit for a number of artists. For every Radiohead, there are more than a dozen bands like The Strokes, clawing their way back into relevancy after clutching at new directions for their material. And then, for the select few, aesthetics can be reshaped on a whim — not necessarily forging new ground, but capturing the spirit of discovery and exploration. Toro Y Moi’s fourth album, What For?, falls into the latter camp, sidestepping expectations and reconfiguring the project’s identity. 

Without a doubt, the move is deliberate and thankfully, authentic. Chillwave is now associated with a distinct time and place, regarded as an over-hyped trend fashioned by the indie blogosphere itself. If Chaz Bundick has been distancing himself from the moniker with each successive album, What For? is the final separation from his tether to the genre. His retread of 70s funk and psychedelic pop lies somewhere between a subversive dodge and a playful taunt toward his detractors. And for the most part, it works.

Even so, there are noticeable growing pains. The lyrical content behind Toro Y Moi has never been particularly refined, but Bundick’s vague subject matter desperately warrants revamping. Even the title of the album is a flippant attack that refuses to explain itself, or assert its relevance throughout each song. On The Flight, Bundick intones: “We’ve got all we want / There’s no place to go / There’s only one / There’s something wrong.” He manages to simultaneously contradict himself, yet say absolutely nothing about the situation that likely inspired him to pen the lines in the first place. It comes across as an aimless attempt at depth, intentionally leaving out personal details (what exactly is wrong, Chaz?). Spell It Out, a catchy Night Fever and Prince crossover, suffers an even more morose fate. Lines such as “What do you want / Is it more than her? / Maybe no one really wants to try,” never particularly engage, leaving the listener’s memory just as abruptly as they enter. Perhaps Bundick is the one who really doesn’t want to try.

That’s not to say he isn’t trying elsewhere. The guitar-pop underpinnings layered throughout are enough to charm their way through the fog of prosaic missteps. The sharp stabs and rhythmic reversals of Buffalo compliment Bundick’s higher register, and electronics are introduced sparingly to further induce a hazy atmosphere. Empty Nesters is easily one of Bundick’s crowning achievements — a blissed-out psych pop song that draws from a kaleidoscopic palette. Zeppelin-esque swaggers, coupled with a few dissonant left-turns, lurch out of the track menacingly around the minute mark. Twee is always at its finest with a little bit of nastiness thrown in.

Elsewhere, What For? maintains the same consistency that has followed Bundick since his 2009 debut. Lilly is a mid-tempo cosmic jam that slows to a Spacemen-3 crawl in its chorus. The instrumentation, riddled with delayed guitar bends and ambient falsetto, seems like the right concoction of ingredients, but the song ends with an echoed whimper instead of an eruption. Half Dome sounds half-borrowed from Britpop more than anything else — Bundick lays down an understated alto that sounds reminiscent of a timid Graham Coxon. The fuzzed-out bass overpowers the jangly strums of the verse, doing most of the melodic heavy lifting. Because of this, the song perpetually advances forward in a hypnotic groove, until a choir of sixties-inspired backing vocals elevates the lines, “You must be waiting for me,” into a vaguely inspiring sentiment. It is a testament to Bundick’s songwriting ability that he can take something indistinct and ascribe meaning underneath. 

What For? is an ultimately perplexing collection of songs — a mishmash of Bundick’s best and worst musical ideas, but nevertheless a glimpse into an artist who is unafraid to shift into new sonic territory. Being afraid of failure is not necessarily a bad thing, however. In Bundick’s case, a good dose of fear might have left us with a more meticulous record; maybe even with well-thought out lyrics. Either way, the album will likely take up space as an inconsequential footnote in the annals of indie rock history. Whether it deserves that fate remains to be seen — Bundick is likely already plotting his next move.