Evolving from the relaxed trance/shoegaze hybrids of his early chillwave work, 2011’s Underneath The Pine—Chaz Bundick’s second album under the Toro Y Moi moniker—pulsed with energetic funk jams that, at times, seemed like a modern re-imagination of disco. With Bundick stating that follow-up Anything In Return was meant to be a pop album, he could have been reasonably expected to continue that progression from arranger to full-on psych-funk songwriter. Instead, the record revisits Bundick’s producer identity and the complexly layered house music of his past, while incorporating new experiments with bloated pop grooves. The result is an album that, in many places, sounds like pop music, but feels like it almost nowhere.
Bundick clearly wants to make music to move to; across the record, he kicks the tempo up a notch, gives his basslines punch and heft, and slabs on thick layers of production polish. Though he’s already proven that retro styles and electro-pop make for compatible bedfellows, the adjustments do amp things up a bit: “Rose Quartz” takes a long time to get where it’s going (and then gets a little too repetitive), but, with an emerging interplay of synths and vocal samples, is an ultimately memorable cut of R&B-affected techno-boogie. “Studies,” meanwhile, generates a smooth, soulful ’70s vibe with bouncing bass, psychedelic guitars, and harpsichord. Where Bundick wants mainstream sounds, however, he neglects much-needed transition work; Top 40-inspired songs like “Cake” and “Never Matter” rest uncomfortably in their surroundings, and stumbling onto them can make for a jarringly scattershot listening experience.
The dark atmosphere and clubby aesthetics of the DJ approach suck out the vibrancy and immediacy that makes pop songs such low-investment fun. No one’s asking Toro Y Moi for instant gratification, of course—and there’s much here to appreciate for those with the patience to absorb it all—but Bundick’s reluctance to streamline his songs or otherwise tighten things up ultimately makes the record a step backward in accessibility. It’s not just a preference for textures over melodies that makes Anything In Return fall short of its genre-bending aspirations, however. Pop music is more than just dance beats and glammy electronics; it’s an attitude, and Bundick might just not have it.