Often the most inventive artists are also the most re-inventive, in that a willingness to not dwell on any one aesthetic or stylistic sensibility for a prolonged period of time and constantly rethink and recontextualise one’s artistic persona naturally enhances one’s scope when it comes to crafting entirely new ideas. One of modern underground music’s most important examples of such an artist comes in the form of Toro y Moi, the multilingual moniker of American musician Chaz Bear, whose comprehensive contributions to the evolution of chillwave didn’t solely give rise to this arcane pop subgenre, but also helped see into existence an entirely new avenue for the development of new styles of music, with chillwave being one of the first subgenres to have arisen from particular apertures of the Internet, as opposed to being connected to a specific geographical location or culture. At the same time, however, Toro y Moi’s association with the establishment of chillwave during the late 2000s and early 2010s is only one side to the musician’s artistic capacity, with subsequent releases seeing Bear either tweak his sound slightly or even completely reinvent it. Toro y Moi’s third studio album, 2013’s Anything in Return, for instance, saw the artist move closer towards a more accessible branch of pop music, whilst working in elements of R&B and house music, whilst his previous LP, 2015’s What For?, was a straight-up indie and psychedelic rock record. Such endeavours exhibited Bear as being just as interested in providing his own takes on more familiar styles of music as he is in being at the forefront of refreshing musical developments. With each undertaking under the Toro y Moi alias being at least somewhat transformed from the material to come before it, each release brings about a sense of mystery surrounding what new paths Bear could find himself exploring, and the case was no different for his fifth full-length project, Boo Boo. Indeed, although Toro y Moi’s latest album marks a revisiting of his chillwave roots, these sensibilities nevertheless appear in a somewhat altered form, with funk, R&B and even some derivatives of contemporary hip hop standing out as playing an exceptionally integral role in the stylistic leanings of these new compositions. Just as the dreaminess is cranked up to full on Boo Boo, Bear also finds himself toying with narratives more than ever before, with his return to chillwave paralleling the singer’s reflections on his growing popularity and heightened recognition outside of his humble origins in the crevices of the Internet. All this being said, however, with Boo Boo standing as arguably Toro y Moi’s most atmospheric record thus far, it also seems to be the most dependent on ambiance, to the point wherein Bear’s previous songwriting finesse and fine ear for melody comes secondary to the ethereal tone, with the album feeling underwritten at times as a result. I find myself all too regularly criticising musicians for relying too heavily on atmosphere and sacrificing compelling compositional prowess as a result, but Boo Boo is unfortunately another example of this. That’s not to say Toro y Moi doesn’t strike some exceptionally beautiful, wistful and poignant moments across the record, but, from both a compositional and lyrical perspective, Boo Boo is simply too bare to translate Bear’s artistic vision entirely efficiently.
With Bear having been a bellwether of one of the most aesthetically potent subgenres to have emerged in recent years at the time of its inception, he is undoubtedly a man who knows how to convey a captivating vibe through his music, and if there’s one salient strength to Boo Boo, it is undeniably its overall luscious tone. In fact, this could even be said of practically every song on the album, with just about all these tracks being laced in the sleek, soporific, syrupy smooth sonic palette that has typically brought such a significant following to Toro y Moi’s music, hence why his initial popularity amongst Internet-based indie music scenes is now spreading to a much broader and more mainstream scale. This being said, simply sounding nice and slick isn’t enough to carry an entire, 50-minute long record, with the lacking structural fluidity and compositional cohesion unfortunately being rather pervasive, especially on the longer cuts that push as high as past the seven-minute mark. I find myself saying this constantly, but when the appeal of a certain style of music is based primarily on its overall atmosphere, it’s typically a well-rounded balance between crafting some pretty sonic wallpaper and still retaining the listener’s attention with some subtle but enthralling songwriting that, generally speaking, makes such genres so enrapturing at the best of times. Boo Boo, however, is a far cry from what I think could be considered a successful example of this, rather it stands as perhaps Bear’s most structurally lacking and melodically sparse album to date. There are nevertheless exceptions to this, but it is most definitely true for the wonky R&B ballads that play a rather prominent role throughout the tracklisting. Windows, for instance, is in severe need of a satisfying sense of direction, with the song’s airy quality, as the clangoring electronic drums overpower the mix, simply drifting along with barely any semblance of structure. If there was some sort of palpable framing evident, or at least a sticky motif, the song would have made a lot more sense, but instead, its development relies almost exclusively on the occasional addition of various, wispy melodies and subtraction of percussion. This feeling of aimlessness is only exacerbated by Bear’s performance on the mic, with his vocals being diluted with a watery autotune — potentially picked up from Travi$ Scott through their work together — that only works to weaken what is already one of his dullest deliveries from across the album. Coming to think of it, much of Boo Boo is flooded with a similar aquatic tone that suggests that Bear has been taking cues from other abstruse Internet subgenres like seapunk, although this is seldom used for any substance beyond its niche aesthetic. As an example, Don’t Try, with its languid synth swells and cavernous ambiance, may maintain the mellow listlessness of a gentle tide, but it’s so structurally scarce that there is really nothing here preventing it from merely falling into the background. Much of the same could be said about You and I, Labyrinth and W.I.W.W.T.W. and with many of such songs appearing towards the backend of the tracklisting, and with the glorified interludes of Pavement and Embarcadero acting as a damper on the album’s pacing, Boo Boo suffers from some significant issues of structure that only emphasise how underwritten much of the record is.
The more successful songs from Boo Boo are unequivocally those that are more groove-driven, and this is not simply because such cuts substantially pick up the pace, but also because they tend to be composed more competently and retain a sort of squonking swagger that comes a lot closer to balancing the wistful aura surrounding the record with a more striking style, even if they also suffer from some substantial songwriting shortfalls. The squelching electro-funk vibe of the opening track, Mirage, and the peppy bass groove that propels Inside My Head forward against some electronic chimes and glitchy synths, for example, at least demonstrate a much more arresting application of timbre, even if they could both use some improved compositional cohesion, and even if the use of autotune on the latter track, once again, comes across as rather unnecessary. No Show stands out as bringing together the funky melodies of these aforementioned songs with the slick balladry of many of the other cuts from Boo Boo in a rather endearing fashion, with the prominence of the wobbly bass groove and shimmering synths providing a gratifying sense of counterpoint to Bear’s lacy vocal delivery, although the way in which the ending of the song simply just peters out makes for a rather feeble and underwhelming finish. Girl Like You attempts to strike a similar sense of counterbalance, but, in this case, the myriad layers of vocal lines don’t elegantly intertwine as much as they seem to simply be clumsily tangled together, just as the mellow synth melodies that provide the foundation for the piece don’t quite connect in a particularly graceful fashion with the rhythm section and the other electronic bleeps and bloops. Indeed, although there are a handful of tracks across Boo Boo that don’t quite cave in to aesthetics as much as the rest of the record does, these moments nevertheless exhibit a similar need for a more airtight approach towards songwriting that would anchor some of their infectious grooves in a more potent format.
Regarding the question of whether or not Boo Boo can be recommended to fans of past Toro y Moi projects and chillwave in general, the fact that the record is so heavily centred on the superficial appeal of this style of music may indeed maintain the same blissful charm. On the other hand, with this album being somewhat weak at times on a compositional and melodic basis — at least compared to Bear’s previous output — whether or not Boo Boo will have the same replayability is a lot more touch-and-go, as it comes across as leaning much closer to the auditory wallpaper side of the spectrum. This is undoubtedly a shame, as matching the colourful sonic palette of many of these songs with a similarly rich perception of melody and compositional finesse could have made an exceptionally strong addition to the Toro y Moi back-catalogue, but instead, a rather directionless sense of stylistic exploration and a poorly constructed pacing makes for a largely uneventful and passive listen. Although far from a blemish on Bear’s record for having a keen ear for lush ambiance, Boo Boo is surely not the most successful vessel in which these atmospheres have been endeavoured.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10