Release Date: January 22, 2013
If, a couple years back, you expected the word “chillwave” to be long gone by 2013, well, some people in 1983 thought rap was a passing fad, too. You know what happened instead? A$AP Rocky signed a three-million-dollar deal for tracks he cut with hip-hop’s most chillwave-y, Loveless-jacking producer, Clams Casino. R&B got stretched and taffy-pulled into dark, dubby corridors that led to albums that topped charts and critics’ polls. Indie rockers like Wavves find themselves increasingly blown-out, acid-washed, squelched, and warped. Cheap-sounding vintage synths became de rigueur enough that James Murphy now appears alongside Ron Howard and Eva Longoria in sub-EPCOT imagineering corporate-bullshit segments before Django Unchained screenings.
Chillwave was always less a genre unto itself than the cheap-dyed neon T-shirt slipped into pop’s white laundry load, bleeding all over the genrescape and coloring the potential of new auteurs like, oh, Miguel. And even in its purest, most gelatinous form — see Washed Out’s greatest-hit-turned-Portlandia-theme — the 2009 curio wound up injecting more ambient grandeur into the mainstream than those Benedictine Monks who went rogue and shilled the bestselling Chant on late-night talk shows.
Chaz Bundick is the chillest of them all, since it never occurred to him to give a shit about what people labeled his low-key, occasionally colorful funk, because he was just happy to be here, to be heard. His caustic buddy Tyler, the Creator maintains that “Toro is not chillwave,” though Bundick has shared a drummer with Glo-Fi Public Enemy No. 1 Washed Out. No, the man behind Toro y Moi prefers the simple term “pop,” which is neither wrong nor exactly right. The mistake is to take this stuff too literally, to assume he’s just some guy this music happened to, that he dug it up in a shoebox in the yard or accidentally tinkered it into existence in his bedroom. Nothing about Toro y Moi is very present, it’s true, but as his records become more sexual…well, sex is urgent, right?
Spoiler alert: Anything in Return sounds like tourmate Dan Snaith’s Caribou records bleeding into his Daphni records. The influence can’t be understated: Both Snaith’s and Budnick’s thoughtful non-falsettos are completely devoid of sustain. The latter puts his uvula to work here even less than on previous Toro albums, because he’s also hiding it behind fewer smoke screens. As always, the vocal cipher really, really wants you to check out his production portfolio, which seesaws between futurist innovation (screwy synth patches contest with porn-y Moon Safari-goes-Stevie organ on “High Living”) and his desire for accepted authenticity (Miguel would kill for the paisley pulse of “Studies,” while Maxwell might have a conference call or two over “Grown Up Calls”).
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But Toro’s will to identity is unlikely to outpace his desire to emulate anytime soon. The highly remixable single “Say That” would’ve fit fine on Four Tet’s wonderfully austere Pink collection last year — because Budnick’s own unassuming vocal work sounds like a dusty, forgotten sample — while the Joker-paced “So Many Details” is what we imagine rising mystery Jai Paul will sound like after he releases something you can hold in your hand.
Return is neither a step up or down from 2010’s wave-warping Causers of This or 2011’s time-warping Underneath the Pine, yet it’s not more of the same. “Cake” succeeds the most at “pop”; it’s his brightest moment musically, reveals his modest ambition most clearly and undeniably, and is lyrically his most coherent (“I will be her boy forever”) and erotic (“When you talk about how your room shakes at night / I wonder if you spend that time / Taking photos with a friend of mine”). This is sun-through-dorm-room-blinds realism that’s never known an actual afterparty, but strives for a human connection beyond merely making out. Budnick is the good-natured designated driver who holds Abel Tesfaye’s lady-friends’ hair when they’re sick and turns down Frank Ocean’s generous offer to be wingman for a friend-of-a-friend. He’s the nice guy who finishes in the middle — what (or who) he’s sandwiched between is snapping pleasantly into focus.