Contrary to a mind-blowing surprise, Ernest Greene has made an album stuffed to the brim with pop songs, all shrouded in reverb, all carrying a message of escapism and all ridiculously catchy.
Of course, it could have panned out differently. Ever since his emergence a couple of years back under the Washed Out moniker, Greene has been associated with the “chillwave” tag. At first it was of pleasantry; he was at the helm of a music genre that was positively beaming; so fresh and new – everybody wanted a piece of it. Now, the word is treated like a burning mound of rubber. Nobody wants to be seen within a mile of it. Artists previously pigeonholed and shackled by the term have broken out to release material that’s more in line with ’80s pop; funk; anything but chillwave, essentially.
Greene, on the other hand, has bided his time and teased a loyal audience with mini-releases and MP3s for them to feast on. Instead of shying away or exploding apart the “chillwave” term by exploring a plethora of alternate routes, he’s begun to rejoice in it all. This is plain to hear on Within And Without.
Opener Eyes Be Closed sets a precedent; warm and luscious synth keys glowing from the surface, surrounded by layer upon layer of indecipherable vocals and drum-machine percussion. Like a more refined version of Washed Out’s early material – Feel It All Around and Belong– the whole piece is free, unleashed but ultimately tangible. It works because people can put this on and lose their grip of reality, go to another place entirely. The whole album benefits from a cinematic feel and a sense of escape. Lyrics aren’t lyrics in the strictest sense –instead, they act like instructions on Amor Fati; cries of “relax”,“slow down” spelling out the purpose of the album to the listener: “You’re being offered an experience here, so let go, reach out and grab what you’re being granted.”
To make eight carbon copies of the opening track however would be foolish, and vaguely similar to what Greene ended up doing with hisLife Of Leisure EP. Instead of following one distinct and proven formula, these songs are produced in such a way that each piece has at least one discernible attribute, be it a simple change of tack like the strange siren of a violin’s cry to open Far Away or Caroline Polachek’s alien-like, hushed vocals that add substance to album highlight You And I.
The most notable and successful of Greene’s attempts to put a slant on things arrives as the album closes with A Dedication. For the very first time, we’re a hair’s breadth away from the man. No longer is he shielded by a wall of skittering synthetics; here, he’s only left with a piano by his side and we’re exposed to the ins and outs of his vocals. Gradually, it builds and is backed up by searing horns and a Person Pitch-esque burst of keys. All the same, it is without doubt the most thought-out and rehearsed work on the record. Many of the songs here feel like momentary bursts of euphoria rather than well-calculated pop songs and in many ways, they work for that reason. But this unanticipated contrast, placed right at the tail of the beast, works wonders.
Many dues need to be paid to Ben Allen, the album’s producer and the man behind many other albums that were equally capable of collapsing under their own weight of hype (Merriweather Post Pavilion, Halcyon Digest). Those behind Within And Without have understood the risks of basking in chillwave’s welcoming rays. They’ve succeeded in making an album that does well to second-guess its listener, whilst never disowning the sound that first brought Greene to the foreground. “Chillwave” might be dead and buried, but Washed Out has only just set foot in the water.