Out on the road today, I saw a Memory Tapes sticker on a Cadillac. Little voice inside my head said don’t look back, you can never look back, even when you entire aesthetic is specifically predicated on looking back. Neon Indian is eating, Washed Out has Kyle Mooney all in the videos, but damn near a decade after the Year Chillwave Broke, the genre of fuzzy, drifting nostalgia has become the subject of fuzzy, drifting nostalgia. But there’s one guy from that wave who’s found ways to reinvent himself from month to month like he was mid-’80s Madonna. And the amazing thing about Toro Y Moi’s run is that he’s managed to twist his sound into whole new shapes without ever entirely losing that amber chillwave hue.
After Causers Of This helped hacks like me figure out what chillwave was, Chaz Bundick moved into sticky ’80s soul, shy-swagger synthpop, and showing up in the “featuring” credits of big-deal rap albums. In Les Sins, Bundick’s got the best dance-music alter-ego this side of Caribou, and Puff Daddy rapped over his banger about not bothering him because he’s working, something Bundick clearly believes as much as Diddy ever did. On 2015’s What For?, Bundick even went all the way Lemonheads on a couple of songs. Thus far this year, he’s already made a whole album with some jazz-musician twins and changed his name, for unexplained reasons, to Chaz Bear. (I’m thinking he’s more Paddington or Corduroy than Yogi, even if he did just name his new album Boo Boo.) And now he’s back with another album that might just be the best Toro Y Moi album yet, partly because it sounds like all these past strains of his music whirled together and partly because it’s just a great album.
Boo Boo is two different albums at once: It’s a breakup album and a holy-fuck-why-am-I-famous album. We’ve heard both of those things plenty of times, but I can’t remember hearing them melted together like this before. To hear Bundick tell it, his being weirdly famous may have contributed to his breakup. (In this Noisey interview: “It was to the point where my partner couldn’t relate to me, and to have someone that can understand those pressures is almost a necessary thing. I see how actors end up dating actors. It’s just a funny thing to fall into.”)
So it’s an album about isolation, about finding yourself alone and realizing that maybe things are better that way. On “Girl Like You,” a song about the initial getting-to-know-you rush, even his come-on coos have a note of caution: “Temporary love in sight now / Love is scary, baby, look out.” A song later, he’s left spinning, trying to make sense of things: “I don’t think it’s me, I don’t think it’s you / It’s the universe.” Elsewhere, we hear him doing the classic outsider thing, looking at his whole life like it’s a vaguely boring movie that he’s half-watching on a lazy Wednesday afternoon: “Woke up only cuz I thought I had to / Person in the picture’s really not you.” He literally sings, “Got me staring out the window,” which is also a perfect thing to do while you’re listening to his music.
But even when he’s singing about heartbroken, Bundick doesn’t sound heartbroken. There’s always this sense that, as down as he might feel, he’s still living better than when he was working shit jobs in South Carolina. “My baby got fed up with my ego,” he sighs, but then offers this: “Wasn’t even thinking we were going worldwide / Figured it was better than the Southern life.” There aren’t many singers who sound much like Bundick. His voice never rises much above a murmur, and he always gives off the sense that he’s trapped in his own head, singing more to himself than to the rest of the world. But he also sounds smooth. When his calm, controlled tenor lifts up into falsetto, it’s effortless, almost slick. Listening to him, you don’t get the sense that you’re hearing a man in pain. Instead, he sounds like a cool, confident virtuoso who’s pulling from a vast musical knowledge, grabbing whatever works and turning it into something sticky and fluid.
And then there’s the chillwave thing. Back in 2009, when we first learned his name, Bundick wasn’t talking about recreating the feeling of hearing a Duran Duran tape that had been sun-warped after sitting on a dashboard for two weeks. He talked about J Dilla, about learning from a guy who was masterful about using sound to impart meaning. On Boo Boo, he’s working with better equipment than he used to; there’s nothing lo-fi about it. But there’s still a goopy emotional resonance to the way he puts together music. Bundick’s got this lovely, inimitable singing voice, but a lot of the time, he’s not even singing; he’s just letting his exquisite vintage-synth sounds mutter to each other in the corner. Almost all the sounds on Boo Boo are electronic, but they all have shape and definition and character. There’s plenty of empty space in the music, but you can still hear a ton of different melodies at work if you break the tracks down into their component parts. He’s good with words, but he’s better with sounds.
As much as Bundick has switched his style up over the years, there’s something comforting and familiar about Boo Boo. The whole thing is a sunny, contemplative drift, like Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme remade as minimal dance-pop. It struts and sidles and shimmies through the muffled synth-funk of “Mirage” and gorgeously layered echoes of “Windows” and the hushed balladry of “You And I.” And then it all wraps up with a hidden track, “Be,” a tiny little hymn of a song, with Madeline Kenney, a singer-songwriter signed to Bundick’s Company Records, getting the final word, half-whispering, “Don’t call me back.” It’ll make you nostalgic — not for the ’80s or even for 2009, but for right now.
Boo Boo is out 7/7 on Carpark.
Other albums of note out this week:
• HAIM’s incandescent festival-pop construction Something To Tell You.
• Broken Social Scene’s blissful and long-awaited return Hug Of Thunder.
• Melvins’ punishing, half-instrumental double album A Walk With Love And Death.
• Public Service Broadcasting’s post-rock concept LP Every Valley.
• Great Grandpa’s thrashing, squalling full-length debut Plastic Cough.
• Decemberists offshoot Offa Rex’s debut The Queen Of Hearts.
• This Is The Kit’s fragile folker Moonshine Freeze.
• Earthling’s thrash metal attack Spinning In The Void.
• Tristen’s warm, nostalgic Sneaker Waves.
• The immigrant-rights benefit compilation So Many Singing.
• Cheap Fantasy’s Life Of Glass EP.