Review: Toro y Moi, What For?

On What For?, Toro y Moi stays true to his ambitions—there’s a little less groove, a lot less synth, and a way more classic pop than every before.
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On What For?, Toro y Moi stays true to his ambitions—there’s a little less groove, a lot less synth, and a way more classic pop than every before.
Toro y Moi What For

opinion byJESSE NEE-VOGELMAN

Twice in the last week I mentioned the new Toro y Moi album to like-minded 20-somethings and got the same response: “Oh, I’ve got him on a playlist.” The playlist: Beats for the Sheets.

Beats. For. The. Sheets. Everyone’s got some. Maybe you like the groove or maybe you’ve just got thin walls and nosy roommates. Either way, there’s probably some default music you have primed on your iPhone or super-cool-vintage turntable. Once it was Pink Floyd; then it was Portishead. In the early Tens, a generation of sensitive indie brats had Chazwick Bundick (yes, I know, what a spectacular name).

This makes a lot of sense for Toro y Moi’s early catalogue. Causers of This through Anything in Return sported many of the qualities conducive to a great make-out album: funky, yet accessible; obscure enough to be cool, complicated enough to sustain an awkward pause, yet ambient enough to push to the background when things heat up.

So, when Bundick’s newest offering, What For? came about, we thought we knew what we were getting. The early single, “Empty Nesters,” confirmed suspicions that the album would be an effortless and sexy summer party, even if it did boast a little more guitar-driven, radio-friendly, sing-a-long-itude than we’re used to. Upon completing the entire album, however, the figures don’t quite add up. While What For’s still got all the sunny barbecue of his earlier albums, it’s missing the dirty soul that differentiated his work from the electro-pop, chillwave, etc. of his lesser competitors.

Perhaps we knew this was coming. In 2013, Bundick told Rolling Stone that he was “getting tired of doing R&B and funk.” On What For?, Bundick stays true to his ambitions—there’s a little less groove, a lot less synth, and a way more classic pop than every before. The lilting opening of “Run Baby Run” recalls the Beach Boys, minus the harmonies and innovation. “Spell it Out” has an interminably catchy chorus and even an actual, real-live guitar solo (weird, right?). By the album’s end, Bundick's message is clear: I, too, can be a rock star.

Yet, I’d be surprised if this is the album that catapults Toro y Moi from indie darling to stadium filler. It’s not that it’s bad, or even an extreme departure from the Toro we know and love. In fact, What For? is just as catchy and technically polished as anything Bundick has previously released. Some songs will rightfully cameo at rooftop parties in Brooklyn or the artfully patterned cafes of beanie-wearing novelists. But, in the absence of the chill-ed out R&B and funk that defined his early sound, Toro y Moi’s newest album just doesn’t stand out from an increasingly crowded field.

toro y moi-min

This is all especially interesting because, in that same Rolling Stone interview, Bundick said that he lost interest in funk, synthesizers, and Seventies references because “everyone’s doing that.” Yet, by shedding the influences that he dubbed ubiquitous, Bundick suddenly sounds a lot more like the type of easy pop album that we’ve grown used to over the last half-decade: capable, listenable, and composed of songs that pleasantly blend into each other like a sort of citrus smoothie—bright and refreshing, but not necessarily more so than anything else at Jamba Juice.

Bundick’s career is still blossoming—he’ll have decades to define and redefine his sound. And, as he grows as a musician, it’s important to remain cognizant of what distinguished him in the first place. While some developing artists abandon their greatest strengths with incredible results, other times they may leave us wondering, What For?B-