Toro y Moi’s ‘Mahal’ familiarly balances isolation, community

photo of mahal album cover
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Grade: 3.5/5.0

There is not much that holds Chaz Bear, the one-man band behind Toro y Moi, back in the world of production. Diddy sought him out at Coachella and asked him to work on an upcoming record. His work with Flume earned him a Grammy nomination. And his latest album, Mahal, is a smooth assemblage of psychedelic wooz from a forerunner of chillwave, a step back from the synth-pop of 2019’s Outer Peace and further into the jazz and funky basslines that have underwritten his tracks since his debut in the mid-aughts.

Drawing on classic disco and R&B as much as his own contemporary variations on new wave and psychedelic rock, Mahal shows Bear hasn’t lost his edge. Toro y Moi is still Toro y Moi. But the Toro y Moi we know hasn’t changed all that much: If there’s one thing Bear has lacked, it’s the ability to complement his distinctive sound with lyrics capable of telling a memorable story, lyrics that impress themselves upon his listener. 

So it is that Mahal starts strong with “The Medium,” a lyricless opener that puts the album in drive when a rough-trod riff from the Unknown Mortal Orchestra guitarist Ruban Nielson kicks in. The album is structured by the sounds of a jeepney — before “The Medium” gets underway, the starter clicks, the engine revs and Mahal is on its way. 

The album’s layering of sounds is suggestive of calm drives, ambling trips where the radio cuts in and out and the day slips by. Bear establishes two levels of diegesis: the worlds he describes on the tracks and the experience of listening to the tracks. Audiences listen, in turn, to someone else listening to Mahal. It’s an effective, communal touch. 

But for all of his production mastery, Bear’s album often manages to get ahead of itself, to debut a verse before an intro has paid its dues, to jump past lyrics that go by too fast. “Is it true, there’s a past life/ where I met you,” Bear asks in  “Goes By So Fast.” The track enchants with saxophone and flute, yet it leaps past itself, leaving gaps in its lyrics where gaps shouldn’t exist. 

Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that those gaps are reflective of time’s passing. But other points on the album suffer from the same issue to a greater degree. Look no further than the cut — executed as a change of radio station — from “Goes By So Fast,” a statement on how people change, to “Magazine,” which begins with “Nothing here to see, factory’s/ overseas.” 

While its placement on Mahal may be off, “Magazine” does pull off the album’s dry sense of wit, a droll dispatch of social commentary. (The track will go on to discuss, not particularly cuttingly, the effects on the environment of moving industries overseas.) And just when the album needs some casual levity, the following track “Postman” tells a story about a letter that never materializes: “She forgot to put it in the mailbox/ What the fox?”

Mahal switches between fun and austerity, the singular and the plural. The record develops a sense of Bear’s personality as it goes on, often focusing on the ways that the pandemic has changed him. They’re hints, barely, but in “Last Year,” he sings about learning to love himself and how the “Session went well/Yeah, I kept my chill.” “Mississippi” — a track so full of slow bass lines it’s perhaps the sonic equivalent of a sleepy summer day — sheds light on Bear’s desire for community: “Would you miss me/ If I had to go?”

As Mahal drifts to a close, its preoccupation with community takes center stage. It traces a line from the lonely wordlessness of “The Medium” to the recognition of a hole opened up by a year of isolation on “Last Year” and, eventually, to the reverie of “Millenium” and its “one more reckless night with Dom Perignon.” As Bear said in an MTV interview, “​​It’s about the real-life interactions, the spontaneous pop-ups, and I want it to bring a little spark to the neighborhood.”

Contact Dominic Marziali at [email protected].