Washed Out’s Chillwave, All Grown Up

Photo courtesy of Sub Pop. Photo: Will Govus

When your kids ask, “What was chillwave?” — and they most certainly won’t — feel free to rattle off phrases from Washed Out’s biography: “Feel It All Around,” “Life of Leisure,” “Washed Out” and “Mexican Summer.” Those words put you in tune with the general vibe without even drawing attention to how they respectively refer to the genre’s definitive song, the EP from whence it came, the guy who made it and the label that put it out. Of course, there’s the unyielding bliss of “Feel It All Around” itself, supremely supine and based upon a pitch-shifted sample of an Italo-disco song from 1983. Not to mention Life of Leisure’s cover art, which achieved a synaesthasia with its contents, submerged in deep blues, aqueous atmosphere, totally removed from the concerns of the working world. That was 2009 for you, the year when indie rock first became fascinated with photography that got a paradoxical instant nostalgia via the Hipstamatic iPhone app.

Ernest Greene is likely aware of all of this. After all, his backstory is also one that’s definitive: upon graduating from the University of Georgia and encountering a cratered job market, his life took a demoralizing turn as he left the artistic bubble of Athens and boomeranged to his parents’ house in phenomenally more mundane Perry (pop. 9,602). It was a familiar post-recession trope, and for chillwave, glo-fi, or whatever made-up word you used to describe it, there was an undeniable economic element underlying the widely mocked escapism. For that world, Greene’s parents house is essentially as iconic as Justin Vernon’s cabin in the woods.

But with his debut LP on indie powerhouse Sub Pop, Greene acknowledges what got him to this point, but announces himself as a sui generis artist more than just a time capsule of 2009. The shift is most blatantly embodied in the choice of cover art. Check the photos from the High Times and Life of Leisure EPs — blurry, intimate, personal. Those people are chilling. Meanwhile, that’s a photo taken from an issue of Cosmopolitan gracing the cover of Within and Without, and man — that dude is clearly puttin’ in work. You can still call Washed Out “bedroom-pop,” but the context is entirely different.

Though every bit as dreamy as its predecessors, Within and Without earns the sort of descriptors never before ascribed to this world: mature, sexy, well-produced. Credit that last part to Ben Allen, whose C.V. includes Animal Collective and Diddy, Deerhunter and Christina Aguilera. To say it sounds like a million bucks overstates its intent — like Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion or Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest, the dynamic range it achieves still feels handcrafted, notably indie rich, bringing to mind something like an iPad, Allison Brie or a high-end Saab, luxurious and worth being coveted but yet alluringly attainable.

As such, people I know who aren’t much into this stuff have branded it “lifestyle music,” which is understandable. I’ve also heard “campus quad music” and “the best dorm-room make-out record since Moon Safari,” and perhaps Greene’s true gift on Within is giving enough sonic guidance to imply what the listener should hear but no concrete instruction. The beaming major-key synth swells and stair-step vocals that typify singles “Eyes Be Closed” and “Amor Fati” can make you want to fall in love or maybe buy a pair of pants more expensive than you’re used to. Closing piano ballad “A Dedication” stumbles along drunkenly, but weirdly hopeful — apply for breakup balm as needed. Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek bisects “You and I” with a stuttering, sultry cameo, singing “I know all your favorite dances” on Within’s single overtly suggestive moment.

Greene name-dropped Dungeon Family production team Organized Noize as a touchstone during the Within sessions, and to a cynic it’s either a blatant cred grab via an “unexpected influence” or an awkward attempt to see himself in the sonic lineage of his home. And yet, you can hear “ATLiens,” “Elevators (Me and You)” and especially “The Art of Storytellin’, Pt. 1” as progenitors of Washed Out’s woozy, gorgeous tableaux that don’t skimp on the low-end — maybe we stuck with “chillwave” because “shoegaze with hip-hop production” wasn’t catchy enough.

But the “lifestyle” tag might stick due to its lineage of a lesser-regarded node of the late ‘90s, i.e., the decadent big-beat that keeps Moby in ridiculous castles even if nobody listens to techno. The drums and bass are steady and fall just shy of true dance BPMs, and the gorgeous and uplifting melodies do little to force themselves on you. They stick regardless. Within doesn’t make any sudden movements, instead going for slow and steady ingratiation (you can tie that into the cover art as much as you damn well please). Generous major chords waft within headphones like the cover’s clean linens, while Greene’s double-tracked vocals crest and contract with only the faintest hint of artifice, guidelines for you to feel whatever you want, all around. It’s got the predictability of tides rolling in and out, but who doesn’t dig that every now and again? It was called “chillwave” for a reason.

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