Review Summary: Toto IV earns a IV/V
1982 was an important year for Toto. From the get go, Toto had a top ten hit under their belt, "Hold the Line", and their debut album shipped over 2 million units. It would seem that things were going great for Toto, but alas that was not so. Their music was good no doubt, but indistinct. It didn't matter that their music was great when it sounded so much like other bands that many listeners assumed it WAS another band. This lack of "brand recognition" led to their follow up album "Hydra" to sell a mere 1/4 of what their first album did. Their third album was a disappointment even compared to "Hydra", both commercially and artistically. By the time 1982 rolled around, the future of Toto was uncertain, and it all rested on the success of "IV". Fortunately for them, IV came just on time. It was a bonafide smash hit, going on to sell over IV (sorry, I had to) million copies. However, just because an album is popular does not mean it's good. Just how well does IV hold up today?
The answer is simple; it holds up fantastically. Don't get me wrong, it's dated worse than most 80's albums, but it's SO dated that it becomes part of the records charm. It never feels so dated to become campy, but there's something so pleasing about how much synth is dripping from this albums every pore. Toto were a band made up of session musicians, who's job it was to change their style to fit the trends of the day, so it isn't really that surprising that IV sounds so much like a product of its time.
However, what is surprising is how much personality Toto show here. They change styles almost every song here, but there is an underlying personality that wasn't shown on their other albums. It's very hard to describe, but overall I think that they just sound more "invested". The members of Toto finally figured out how to shed their faceless habits as session players, and start doing something their own.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, each song here has its own style separate from the other songs here. While normally this would lead to the album feeling disjointed, and to a degree it does, all the songs here have a common "feeling". I wasn't born until the late 90's and didn't know who Toto were until about 2 years ago, but despite having no reason to, I feel incredibly nostalgic when I listen to this album. Every song has this warm, comforting tone to it. This common tone allows the band to flirt with genres outside strict AOR without having to worry much about if it fits with the rest of the album. This also helps keep the album from getting boring, each song is both a part of the whole yet has an identity all its own.
Bobby Kimbles vocals are among my favorites of the 80's, at least within pop. He has very impressive range, and far more importantly, an amazingly smooth and calming voice. His voice is responsible for a very large portion of the album's warm feeling, it floats between notes cleanly without Kimbles having to reign in his voice to do so. He manages to sound passionate while still retaining control over his voice. It's worthy to note that David Paich sings vocals on "Africa", he does a fantastic job as well.
IV stands as one of the best produced albums of all time. Yes, it is dated, and the production is part of that, but that doesn't take away from how full the instruments sound, how well balanced every instrument is, and how clean it all sounds. Despite this being a last ditch album, the band was given a quite large budget to record, and every penny was put to good use.
So far, I've been very high in my praise of IV. However, I didn't give it a 5, and the lyrics are a large reason why. The lyrics here are at best average, at worst painful. As sung in "Africa":
"I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti"
That metaphor is PAINFUL to listen to. It just so happens that the rest of "Africa" is amazing, so that line is excusable, however, not every song here is on the same level of quality that "Africa" is. Some songs here would be good without their lyrics, but the lyrics are enough to mar the rest of the song. Lyrics are probably the least important thing to me, but they're hard to ignore here. They aren't as intentionally meaningless like some of Def Leppard's songs, they clearly are trying to communicate something, they just really, really suck at this communication. If lyrics aren't important to you, there isn't anything here that comes even close to ruining the album, but for those to whom lyrics are of great significance, I recommend almost anything else.
The only other glaring issue with IV is "I Won't Hold You Back". I'm fine with power ballads, "Dream On" is one of my all time favorite classic rock songs period. "Dream On" is good though because it's a POWER ballad. "I Won't Hold You Back" is just a ballad. The problem with "I Won't Hold You Back" is that Toto holds back, they hold back WAY too much. Four fifths of the song is bland, boring, and uninspired. It feels like it was written because this came out in the 80's and they needed to check off the power balled box. The remaining 1/5 though, happens to be one of the best moments on this whole album. The solo for this song is great. It's kinda a shame that such a good solo was wasted on such a throwaway track. I can't say if putting up with 3 minutes of trash is worth 40ish seconds of musical divinity is worth it, but it is worth skipping over the first 3 minutes and pretending it's a 40 second guitar solo interlude.
If you're craving a slice of some classic AOR, it's hard to beat IV. Through a combination of great production, awesome song writing, impressive vocals, and little stiff competition, IV stands as one of the best albums of its genre. It's the product of great session players working together to create something they can be proud of and call their own. It's worth listening to and it's worth owning.
It's A Feeling