The whole point of Anything in Return is that it was made with the intention of conforming to mainstream pop credentials. In an attempt to describe his new angle, Chaz Bundick pointed towards The-Dream and Beyoncé as influences for his latest approach, which meant a structural shift in direction away from the sensual laptop candy of his debut and the refined spillgaze of Underneath the Pine. It was time for him to swallow his hypnagogic glo-fi chill pills and glide freely towards the gilded peaks of a sparkling, edgy terrain. However, with all due respect for attempting such a wildly ambitious shift, Toro y Moi has missed the proverbial mark with this one. A handful of tracks embody the biting resonance Terius Nash has mastered in his dominant super-stride, albeit without the glitter and egoism, while the remaining songs breeze past like a gentle flurry of tender snowflakes; pretty, but void of anything particularly memorable.
It’s important to cling on to that context though, just for a sentence or two. The excellent bedroom capers deployed on Causers of This were visionary; the record spoke its own muffled language and was insatiably addictive, albeit underrated. Underneath the Pine glossed over that garbled sexiness and replaced it with an electronic soul-pop sheen, making for a logical move in bringing Toro y Moi up to speed as an upbeat live act. The sophomore effort proved a sidestep apart from the brilliance of what came before it while demonstrating that the man responsible was willing to change tack and develop newfangled aims, much to the astonishment of his heartbroken admirers. The desire to move on and start things over lies at the heart of Anything in Return, not only because the music was written on the back of relocating to a new city and coming to terms with a career in music, but because of the project’s personal blueprint: Chaz wanted to make a pop record that his sweetheart could dance to, and that gives the album a cheeky, fresh-faced pivot.
An immediate assumption might therefore lead to expectations concerning both the album’s influences and its off-key signposting: impossibly addictive hooks; pristine production; themes of lust and resentment; self-propounding anti-sentiment etc. And although there are split instances where such attributes are hinted at, Toro y Moi is more partial to conjuring an experimental wackiness, which is mostly bolstered by the abundance of hip-hop samples that burrow their way into the body of each track. “Say That” provides the most accomplished example of this, where a duel-tone female vox loop is forcefully chopped to create a hypnotic chant that sounds almost unbridled. This is by no means a typical pop trope, but the delivery is inspired and complements the piece brilliantly. The song is about laying waste to second thoughts and trampling hesitation; I don’t know if it’s because the video for lead single “So Many Details” features Chaz singing in the passenger seat of a car, but “Say That” brings to mind a mantra he might have crooned while driving between South Carolina and Berkeley to begin de novo: “She’s alright, I’m alright, we’re alright, we can’t go back,” the singer purrs semi-confidently over the sturdy bassline that flows beneath its lavish chorus.
Elsewhere, “Rose Quartz” exemplifies a dreamy pop bliss that rolls with the loveliest vocal samples. In addition to the aforementioned tracks, it makes up the opening tetralogy; the album’s most effective, compelling and remarkable sequence. The first sign of instability then occurs on “Touch,” where things begin to go pear — it marks a juncture where songwriting starts to crumble apart over its own fruity residue. Those opening four numbers are robust, heel-clickingly good pieces that sound just swell; they induce a sense of automatic elation as a consequence of their excellent production — “sincere pop could well be Toro y Moi’s true calling!”
Then again, maybe not. The distinctive edge that was hewed at the outset soon becomes blunted when a striking lack of stamina engulfs the songs that proceed. However, this is briefly interjected by the album’s most enchanting number, “Cola,” which operates as a mid-flight highlight akin to “Thanks Vision” on Causers of This. But whereas the latter bobbed sensually between succulent cuts, the former embodies a final peak before the following tracks are washed away in their own gummy tide. Although there are some interesting experiments with Auto-Tune on “Never Matter” and “Cake,” the tracks never really invoke any feeling; they simply flutter past, indistinct and hazy.
It is little wonder that Chaz chose to make straight-up R&B-scented pop music at this stage in his career. Taking such bold steps into that glistening terrain saw him turning to a genre that he has great admiration for and that he consequently feels comfortable playing. But Anything in Return also sees him taking on influences that necessitate staggering feats in production, while he experiments with Gap store-friendly live instrumentation to get the right vibe for his new slant. It sounds promising at first, but then it slumps into a bed of mediocrity that Toro y Moi has already proved he is more than capable of avoiding.