‘What For’ plays down musical emotion

“What For?” is Toro y Moi’s fourth full-length album and Chad Bundick’s second release in the past six months. The first release, “Michael,” was made under his Les Sins moniker and ranked on my list for 2014’s Best Electronic Albums alongside Andy Stott’s “Faith in Strangers” and “West Side” by Austin Cesear. Much of what made “Michael” enjoyable for me was the lack of questions I had for it.

That is, I wasn’t wondering what Bundick’s next move was. I wasn’t thinking about whether he would play vintage synths again, whether he had adopted a full band set-up. Because with Les Sins, the premise is clear: it’s Chad Bundick’s DJ project.

With Toro y Moi on the other hand, Bundick seems to want to reinvent himself and revive a lost genre with each new album. After becoming a Chillwave pioneer with his debut, “Causers of This,” he made a mature and organ-heavy funk album, 2011’s “Underneath the Pine.” Next was “Anything in Return,” with 13 tracks that found their influences in ‘90s dance, ‘90s R&B and even disco. Out of Toro’s discography, “Anything in Return” felt least like an album — and more like a collection of tracks unified by their “pretty chill” vibes.

With “What For?,” however, Toro y Moi has released a true album. That is, he has chosen a vibe, maybe even a genre, and stuck with it — that vibe/genre being late ‘60s/early ‘70s psychedelic rock/pop. I acknowledge it seems odd that what I’m claiming to be a decisive sound should use so many slashes in being described, but I stand by this claim. “What For?” is cohesive, largely consistent and altogether well-planned.

Of course, none of these qualities guarantee a great album. Rather, “What For?” is an album full of songs that — while checking off all the boxes for what should make great, even amazing tracks — are only just “good” or “cool.”

To better express this idea, let me offer you some of the thoughts I had while listening: “That’s a nice sounding riff;” “I like that drum fill;” “His voice sounds good here.” Basically, I think the music is pretty pleasant; but while that’s generally a good thing, my engagement with the songs is stagnant, neutral. It has me thinking rather than feeling.

For example, with “Ratcliff,” I’m thinking Bundick has been reading fiction, and has been working on giving his lyrics a more literary quality. And this work isn’t fruitless; the song does seem to tell a Goodbye Columbus meets mid-life crisis type story. It’s just that, that’s all I can say about it. I don’t actually feel there to be a certain narrative within the song.

I much prefer the floaty one-liners Bundick sang on his debut. Lyrics like “I found a job / I do it fine / not what I want / but still I try” off “Blessa” and “I’m sorry I couldn’t name the color of your eyes” off “Fax Shadow” ran the risk of sounding cliché, but I could at least manage more emotion out of them.

On “Lilly,” Bundick sings, “Everyday’s like this / No one gets nowhere.” Behind these chorus vocals plays a steady hi-hat and kick beat, lilting ambient pads, and a sweet electric-blue guitar lick. I picture Bundick looking over San Francisco Bay through some thick fog. He’s wearing a safari hat and has leather sandals on. He has no plans for the day, and he’s cool with that. It’s one of my favorite moments on the album. Still, I can’t help but think this second line — “No one gets nowhere” — is a kind of mantra for “What For?” Like, does this album also go nowhere? And Is “What For?” supposed to be my general reaction?

The best songs on “What For?” then are the ones that don’t give you time to ponder. Lead single “Empty Nesters” and penultimate track “Run Baby Run” rush in with Bundick’s highest vocals and retain themselves with glam-rock riffs matched with straightforward and grooving bass-lines. While “Empty Nesters” certainly wins the tempo race between these two tracks, both feel compact, filled to the brim with riff ideas and backing “ooh’s.” With sugar-sweet lyrics about advisors and margins and references to Blue Album-era Weezer, these songs revel in schoolhouse nostalgia and keep you cozy with 90s indie-rock familiarity.

Now four albums in, Toro y Moi’s trajectory is unclear. I could sense this was the case after “Anything in Return,” but “What For?” has now cemented the following thought in my mind: Toro y Moi is a worthy artist who creates not so worthy albums. To me, beyond his debut and sophomore LPs, his work is more invested in building certain aesthetics than furthering quality songwriting. Perhaps it’s odd, but I am okay with this.

“What For?” could be a question posed in reference to art’s purpose. Is art supposed to make us feel or think? I’d argue both, and I would like to think Bundick feels the same way. And under that metric, this album—in my opinion—fails. To restate what I have said before, I find myself listening to this album knowing certain songs are meant to be emotive and relaxing, but don’t, in turn, feel either. That is, on “What For?,” there exists a gap between what is known and felt.

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