Without doubt, part of the long-standing appeal of Toro Y Moi has been the shift in styles its creator Chaz Bear has approached each record with.
Willingly or not, 2011’s Causers of This pushed Bear (fka Bundick) to the forefront of the so-called ‘chillwave’ era, whilst its follow up a year later Underneath the Pine dropped the hazy synth and samples for live instrumentation, blending funk with the pastoral, influenced by the jazzy soundtracks of 70’s continental European films.
2013’s Anything in Return blended the sounds of its predecessors into a smooth R&B and dance record, peppered with chilled psychedelic numbers and treated to flawless production. These latter sounds found their way into the fourth Toro Y Moi full-length What For?, though here they fully flourished into guitar rock with a hint of classicism à la Supertramp’s Breakfast In America, with melody at the very forefront.
When you factor these changes in direction whilst keeping a strikingly characteristic Toro Y Moi sound, not to mention the eclectic dance project Les Sins or his jazzy jam outs with the brothers Mattson and their Live From Trona visual album, it’s no surprise that Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen has quite aptly called Bear “something of a post-grad role model, having the ability to be flexible, amenable to change, and ultimately successful in all ventures without struggle”.
But if, as Bear notes in the 2016 mini documentary by collaborator and friend Harry Israelson, Toro Y Moi is like a journal for its creator, perhaps the many sides to the project were indicative of a personal conflict of identity. In a recent press release, Bear admits that “After 7 years of touring and recording, I found myself becoming self conscious about my position in life as a ‘famous’ person, or at least my version of whatever that is […] A feedback loop of fearful thoughts left me feeling confused. I felt as though I no longer knew what it was that I actually wanted and needed in and out of life, and at times I felt unable to even tell what was real”.
Turning to music for therapy, Bear found solace in the spacious compositions of Travis Scott, Oneohtrix Point Never and Gigi Masin: “I recognized that the common thread between these artists was their attention to a feeling of space, or lack thereof. I decided that I wanted to make a Pop record with these ideas in mind. That idea for a record is what is what eventually became Boo Boo”.
As you might expect from its title, the fifth full-length record as Toro Y Moi is at times cute, echoey and ghostly as it explores a sparse, 80’s synth-wave landscape throughout.
It’s certainly not a sound and aesthetic that’s alien to Bear, and at times the record sounds like a spaced out, decluttered version of debut Causers of This, but it feels that there is a certain energy lacking that has existed on its predecessors in terms beyond its more downbeat tempo.
For the most part it’s clear that this is intentional. “You and I” is the record’s most powerful moment, and though it feels like the big boomy tom rolls of the best 80s power ballads should drop any moment, they don’t, and instead finger chirpy cowbells and finger clicks line the synths that fill space like the clouds from a smoke a machine. In the song’s video which recently dropped, Bear dances to the non-existent - or at least low key - beat, vibing off the space that it leaves before turning to a stain-glass window, through which a beam of light passes through almost sacredly.
Indeed, in “Windows”, Bear seems to hold the same reflect stance: “Got me staring out my window / Watching shutters touch the light”. Here Bear’s vocals are draped in that Travis Scott-style heavy auto-tune, and though the style is revisited later in “Girl Like You” and “Inside My Head”, it’s just about saved from being gratuitous.
Bear worked with Scott on the track “Flying High” from the latter’s debut album Rodeo, and on Boo Boo Scott’s influence isn’t just in vocal effects. At moments Bear channels Scott’s rhythmic delivery style, keeping almost monotone and pausing before the end of the bar, as on the album’s lead single “Girl Like You’: ‘Crack a Pellegrino / From the Bottle, no cup / That was summer love, that was summer love / Late night, cemetery / Think there’s still a light out”.
While his playing with energy and space is jarring enough to highlight a new chapter in Bear’s life, unfortunately at times Bear’s vocal melodies leave something to be desired, as on “Don’t Try”. A single bass note drives us along slowly and dramatically, but Bear’s lacklustre vocal line sits awkwardly in the mix, as it does at a few other moments on the record.
Though melodically not as rich as his previous offerings, Boo Boo is just as considered and stylistically coherent as you would expect from a Toro Y Moi record, which, given that it was born out of an identity crisis, is a continued testament to its creator.