Review Summary: Toby Driver opens his mind and heart in Madonnawhore: a stripped down, intimate affair of dreamy compositions to lose yourself in.
When anticipating music that involves Toby Driver’s contributions, there’s no way to predict what you’re in for. From high concept avant-garde metal to chamber music and electronica, his bands Kayo Dot and maudlin of the Well can dabble in seemingly every music style imaginable. When Driver revealed that his next project would be an all-ballads solo album of traditional songwriting, it was still a surprising announcement, despite the absence of a reliable context for what to expect. The background of his past music aided in the mystique of what this new endeavor would take the form of. With over a decade since the release of his first solo album, In the L..L..Library Loft
, this feels like a new beginning.
Toby Driver opens his mind and heart for a stripped down, intimate affair of dreamy compositions to lose yourself in. The album’s title refers to the Madonna-whore complex, which Freud had this to say: “Where such men [being those who can only love saintly women while desiring to actually be with someone they see as debased] love they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love.” Lyrical themes focus on conflicting desires in romantic relationships, among other things as well. The atmospheres of Madonnawhore
fittingly exude a sense of femininity and elusiveness in regard to how each piece plays out. Everything is meticulously arranged, while at the same time feeling loose and fleeting. How the broad genre influences function in Kayo Dot could be explained this way, but largely remain where they should be. They are executed very differently for Driver’s solo endeavor.
is purposefully the most consistent and accessible project Driver has done yet. The album’s mission statement speaks to harnessing more traditional songwriting avenues than Driver’s main bands have explored. While fairly true, this is by no means similar to the kinds of music played on mainstream radio. You’d be fooling yourself to expect short-fused pop hits here. Instead, slow-moving, pensive album opener “The Scarlet Whore/Her Dealings with the Initiate” introduces the listener into the experience. Sparse drumming and a light ambience holding it all together is the backdrop for leisurely guitar chord strumming and airy vocals. This piece doesn’t have the diverse tones and dynamics heard from his previous creations. Madonnawhore
is a singular vision, with each track smoothly fluctuating tones throughout. Subtle details will go by on initial listens; this is an album that takes time to reveal its secrets, reveling in muted intricacies. You have to listen closely to the changes that occur, as the compositions are just as much about the space between the sounds as they are about the music itself, especially in “The Deepest Hole” and ghostly “Boys on the Hill.”
The strangest piece on the record, “The Deepest Hole,” plays to strengths of the most minimalistic moments of Kayo Dot wonderfully. It grips the listener with wholly uncanny approaches to melody and rhythm, with staggered guitar playing that lends an odd sense to how it progresses. The track is easily the most unsettling of all six, despite a beautiful bridge section. Most of it feels scattered and uneasy, with the final minute descending into a truly surreal outro. The instruments blend together to lend a kind of vibrating effect to their melodies and tempos, painting a surreal vision beholding thousands of flying creatures resembling butterflies, frantically fluttering their wings in some kind of chaotic unity. Before you know it, the brief outro suddenly ends. The more straightforward “Parsifal” follows “The Deepest Hole,” sounding linear and almost normal in comparison. These two pieces being so different from one another act as a contrasting centerpiece of the album, with lends a singular yet adventurous energy to how Madonnawhore
Reflecting back on the official statement for the press release, this being a traditionally composed record does hold true. However, Toby Driver’s unique songwriting ideas have not been compromised or altered here. There is a restrained, consistent way about how this proceeds through the six movements. The results are mostly void of the kinds of eccentricities and moods that accompany something like a Kayo Dot album. While those also have strong visions, this flourishes in a kind of honesty that has not been so intimately explored by Driver before. His approach to “traditional songwriting” consists of hypnotizing you with dreamy guitars, ambient synths, and plodding drums, the latter usually present to lend the minimum level of composure needed. Sounds don’t usually get too complicated, with the album’s singles “Avignon” and “Craven’s Dawn” having gradual build-ups in intensity of soothing atmospheres. These convalesce together into a stunning display, especially in “Avignon,” before inevitably settling back down and materializing into the next mood the album explores.
Toby Driver molds somewhat customary song structures to his liking, indulging in some beautiful guitar solos, like the bridge of “The Scarlet Whore/Her Dealings with the Initiate” and end of “Craven’s Dawn (courtesy of Ron Varod),” but only at rare, necessary times. Madonnawhore
is mainly a record of naked emotion, and the closest thing to a traditional singer-songwriter record we will likely hear from Driver. This project may or may not be a one-off undertaking; anyone familiar with the unpredictable nature of Kayo Dot’s style of choice knows the futility of predicting what the future holds. This should be approached with an open mind and free of expectation. Allow yourself to be absorbed by, and become lost in, Driver’s latest oddity. It plays out like a beautiful, hazy dream, and acts as a strange gaze into a more personal exploration by a musician who thrives on providing the unexpected.