Toby Driver is a multi-instrumental composer and songwriter based in New York City. For the uninitiated, he has spent the course of the past two decades tirelessly pushing boundaries of music in terms of sound and composition – no two releases are alike yet all co-exist in a hazy, vast galaxy that complement one another.
Madonnawhore is Driver’s first solo album of ballads – songs of a more-traditional structure that ache with surreal sadness and lust – an album that is, once again, unlike anything else in his vast arsenal of recordings. There are certain tropes that hark back to previous work – the stripped-back instrumentation and oddly glacial pace of Stern’s Bone Turquoise on which he played guitar, the cavernous reverb previously heard on Kayo Dot’s magnum opus Coyote – but largely this is a unique item in his catalogue. The slow pace allows for the songs to really breathe and it is easy to get lost in the foggy, Badalamenti-esque synths that cloak much of the album. Driver’s forlorn, yearning vocals on The Scarlet Whore / Her Dealings With The Initiate rise and fall along with the brushed cymbals and gently plucked guitar, whilst becoming both urgent and simultaneously ethereal during album highlight Avignon. There are several moments where a simple, unexpected chord change can carry enormous weight and deliver a subtle yet devastating blow, most notably during Craven’s Dawn and the aforementioned Avignon.
The most intriguing song here, however, is The Deepest Hole – the point at which Driver takes our hand and leaps off the precipice into the cavernous unknown. Performed with a sparsity not heard since Kayo Dot’s 2006 album Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue, an album that created overwhelming tension with its sheer vacuums of silence, The Deepest Hole sits appropriately at the centre of the album, like a black hole pulling all of the beauty of the surrounding cosmos inside. It’s uncomfortable and it’s imposing but also utterly essential.
It will be interesting to see if Toby continues to write in this fashion and to see where he goes next. Personally I would be eager for more records of this style, but I know that second-guessing him is futile. Part of the beauty of his music is that it is continuously forward-thinking, always evolving and growing in unexpected ways. But then again, if he did choose to continue in this vein – to explore further into this world of dark-ambient avant-folk music, to (for want of a better term) “repeat” himself – wouldn’t that just be the most logical (and unexpected) step to take?