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Toro y Moi - Outer Peace Music Album Reviews

Chaz Bear delivers a smartly crafted, comfortably mid-fi album of grooves and melancholy—it’s one of his best albums in years.

With Toro y Moi’s last album, 2017’s pleasant but often forgettable Boo Boo, it seemed possible that Chaz Bear was running out of new ways to make his habitually laid-back music register a pulse. He’d already spun his sound in seemingly every possible permutation, from lo-fi sampledelia to instrumental disco to guitar-crunched indie rock and back again. On Boo Boo, with tempos sagging like a wet paper bag, his production chops too often outstripped his songwriting abilities—a weakness that had dogged Bear (fka Chaz Bundick) since his debut.

But on Outer Peace, Bear sounds revitalized: Buoyed by a refined take on the kinds of dance music he has occasionally toyed with as Les Sins, his woozily recumbent sounds snap to attention. It’s the most smartly crafted Toro y Moi album since 2011’s Underneath the Pine, bringing Bear’s stylistic savvy and studio finesse to some of the stickiest songs in his catalog. Lean, packing 10 tracks in just over half an hour, his sixth album is frontloaded with breezy, house-inspired grooves, shot through with bassline after truly excellent bassline, and fleshed out with a handful of surprisingly affecting sad-trap tearjerkers. The production is comfortably mid-fi—neither expensively hi-def nor self-consciously distorted or tape-warped—yet it sounds remarkable on headphones or good speakers, the rare example of indie dance whose sound design could go toe to toe against most “proper” dance music. It will make any car ride approximately 300% more enjoyable.

In a typical slacker move, Bear wears the low stakes—a mid-career album from an artist closely identified with a cultural moment rapidly receding in the rear-view—on his sleeve. On the giddy single “Freelance,” he turns a filtered vocal line into a garish cavalcade of gagging noises, like a French house tune sung by Bill the Cat. On “Laws of the Universe,” he sings about Prometheus and Bob, claymation characters on the late-1990s Nickelodeon series “KaBlam!”; he mutters that James Murphy is spinning at his house, playing “all rare shit from Flying Dutchman”— a wry and meta-meta double LCD Soundsystem reference. (“I met him at Coachella,” he deadpans. That’s not the only indie inside joke here: On “Monte Carlo,” he rhymes “PDX to OAK” with “Isaac Brock I float away.”)

But such gags are more tongue-in-cheek window dressing for the album’s spry synth lines, 1990s-inspired chord stabs, and sparkling little details—like a few lines of Ugly Casanova’s “Hotcha Girls” interpolated into “Freelance,” just because. “Laws of the Universe” harbors the funkiest guitar lick this side of George Benson; on “Monte Carlo,” the silky way he sings the phrase “1987 Monte Carlo” is so satisfying—run through Auto-Tune and delivered in the staccato cadence of contemporary rap—you could happily loop it for an hour and drift away, Chuck Person style.

Given the gloomy national mood (and the fact that Spotifycore has made a mockery of all things hazily supine), it’s easy to be skeptical of the entire premise of artfully laid-back music nowadays. But if Outer Peace had a subtitle, it would probably be Inner Turmoil. A deep, abiding melancholy runs beneath the record’s house-party vibe. Bear’s cool sigh frequently sounds like the aural approximation of bedhead, his vowels tousled, his consonants shying away from the light. Whether multi-tracked in close harmony or applied like superfine sandpaper, his voice has never been lovelier than it is here, and it trails a pensive shadow as he sings about boredom, anxiety, and ambivalence, and wonders (on two separate occasions!) if he’s getting old.

“I want a brand-new house/Something I cannot buy/Something I can’t afford,” goes the refrain of “New House,” one of the album’s sneaky highlights; it’s the recession-pop anthem we’ve been waiting for since the financial collapse of 2008. But perhaps it’s fitting that it falls to Bear to deliver it: Chillwave’s adolescent regression was always a response to the recession, even if it wasn’t recognized as such; chillwave embodied the “dream of the ’90s” insofar as the 1990s was a decade in which young people’s opportunities withered and died on the vine. A decade down the line, the unemployment rate has fallen below 4 percent but young people’s fundamental prospects haven’t gotten much better. “Uber messed up everything,” Bear grumbles on “Monte Carlo.” In the gig economy, it’s no wonder that the chorus to a song called “Freelance” would mimic someone gagging. Toro y Moi’s brilliance is to make the mere act of survival sound like so much fun.

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