What happens when an artist is carried along on a tide of musical criticism and useless labeling? Since we’re asking, I’d say that Chaz Bundick would have a pretty fair idea of how to answer that question. As Toro Y Moi, his music has often come under attack as being too formless, too reliant on setting moods—too much attempted style and too little accomplished substance. There’s not much doubt about his abilities for the most part, but some feel that his approach to washed out nostalgia-based electronics can at best be described as unstructured, and at worst as exceedingly tedious. But any sort of incidental tendencies that he may have been inclined to indulge on his previous albums have been replaced with a studio full of shiny toys and an almost limitless sense of opportunity. And as a result, Anything In Return is as immediate and inviting as anything he’s released—though not quite on par creatively with his last release, the technicolor-shaded Underneath The Pine.
Adopting a much more song oriented approach to his music than on past records, the 13 tracks that comprise Anything In Return feel much more individual and deliberately insular—almost as if he looked at these songs as all possible singles. And for the most part, they could be. The clacking, tribal percussion and atonal horns on opener “Harm In Change” subtly bend and merge with an aggressive synth and an insistent piano line far removed from his work on Underneath The Pine. The vocals feel smoothed out, almost overly condensed. But it’s a nice contrast with the music, and it’s definitely a harbinger of things to come. From the teeter-totter synth melody of “Say That” to the live instrumentation of lead single “So Many Details,” Bundick quickly develops the glossy veneer that is sustained across the bulk of Anything In Return.
Dabbling in crystalline R&B on “Day One” and psychedelic synth-pop on album highlight “Rose Quartz,” Bundick seems to flit effortlessly from sound to sound and makes the case that this kind of musical appropriation can work under the right circumstances. What could have come off as a form of musical ADD seems loosely connected by his dedication to the source material. By not apologizing for his interest and appreciation for pop music in all of its shiny, multi-faceted surfaces, the songs on Anything In Return turn the inherently disposable mainstream tendencies of this kind of music into a kind of rallying cry for everyone who felt that the term “pop” has been turned into an arbitrary insult.
That’s not to say that all of his efforts succeed. First and foremost, this record feels much more evened out than his previous releases—even uncharacteristically monochromatic at times. The tracks that bear the bulk of the responsibility for this, the meandering and oftentimes irreverent “Grown Up Calls” and “How’s It Wrong,” with its lightweight melody and cookie cutter synths, call more attention to the lackluster songwriting then perhaps Bundick realized. The rest of the tracks do make up for most of the slack he lets slip here, but it’s still a fairly noticeable drop in quality compared to the rest of the album.
It’s inevitable that some people will try to determine where Anything In Return stands in relation to Bundick’s previous work. And maybe that’s a completely reasonable thing to do but it does seem to do a disservice to the record, in that it tries to elevate or denigrate (depending on the critic) something that has no precedent, at least not in relation to his past releases. There are touches here and there, signifiers of some overarching similarities between albums, but Causers Of This and Underneath the Pine do feel very much set aside from the production and lyrical detours that make up the majority of Anything In Return. Bundick has made no attempt to conceal the fact that this record was created under the heavy influence of modern pop music. He has admitted as much in numerous recent interviews, including one in which he said, “I was trying to make a pop record…”
And in his attempt to create a “pop record,” Bundick has shed a light on everything that makes pop music great—honey-throat melodies, hook-laden choruses, pristine instrumentation—but he also shows that these same studio tendencies can make for a very safe, very bland listening experience at times. While Anything In Return never veers into the typically featureless landscape of most radio pop, he needs to tread carefully as there are moments where he comes dangerously close. That being said, the majority of Anything In Return stays well away from the insipid pop detritus of most mainstream radio stations. This isn’t Toro Y Moi playing at making pop music. This is Bundick himself incorporating the influences that have sustained him throughout his relatively short career and producing a glossy snapshot—a love letter of sorts—of those sounds. There is care and attention paid to every aspect of Anything In Return, and regardless of its perceived level of success, this is no half-assed attempt to rely on fans’ fondness for his past albums in order to plaster over any uneven spots. For all of its well-intentioned flaws and near-immaculate production, this record hums with a life of its own, confident in the abilities of its creator. And that’s something that no ineffectual label or knee-jerk criticism can take away.