Considering the increasingly short life cycles of trends in music these days, it’s gotten almost difficult to remember that there was once a subgenre of music known to many as chillwave. It’s been nearly five years since that word introduced us to artists like Neon Indian, Toro y Moi and Washed Out. Two years after it started, the sound got tired, produced diminishing returns, and artists were forced to adapt/innovate or die. For Ernest Greene of Washed Out, he spent his 2011 debut album Within and Without both perfecting and updating the sound of his earlier EPs. While it wasn’t a record that lent itself to any particular distinction among its nine songs, what it lacked in establishing singles it more than made up for in cohesiveness of sound and structure. It’s exactly the sort of evolution that was needed at the time, and the increased clarity on the production and vocals spoke to a much greater clarity of overall vision for the project as well.
Now in 2013 with that sound even further removed from many radars, Greene makes yet another stylistic leap on Paracosm in a bid to keep things interesting. You’re certainly not going to mistake his work for any other artist, and these aren’t earth-shattering changes by any means, but subtle shifts in tone and instrumentation do show us a new side of Washed Out. The new album sounds so warm and tropical it’s practically the opposite of the icier textures chillwave became known for, and it’s so lush and crisp that affixing the name Washed Out to it feels like you’re mislabeling it. Of course in case you need to be hit over the head with this idea, one look at the floral arrangement on the album cover or watching videos for “It All Feels Right” and “Don’t Give Up” will do everything but physically take you out into nature and prove it’s a great pairing with this music. Hell, when it’s not little snippets of indiscernable conversations from a crowd of people that’s plays at the beginnings and ends of most tracks, you get birds chirping and the basic sounds you hear when you hit the “jungle” setting on the white noise machine next to your bed. Obvious though it might be, the visual (and in some respects sonic) representations associated with this album are intended to enhance what’s already there, which it succeeds at doing in spades. If you think you’ve heard Paracosm because you played it through headphones while sitting at your desk or on your couch one afternoon, the experience changes dramatically if you’re laying on the grass in a park on a sunny day or wandering through a local forest preserve.
Beyond all the physical representations injecting additional mood and meaning into the music, one of the key influencers on this record is the use of more than 50 total instruments rather than sampling. The early recordings were extremely sample-dominant, and while Within and Without started to incorporate a wider variety of organic elements (particularly as part of the live show), this is really the first time guitars and live drums have been used on a Washed Out album. There’s also a host of other, stranger instruments that were used on various songs that might not be so easy to pick out unless you’re really listening closely. Some of those instruments and sonic influences have been chronicled as part of a short documentary by The Creators Project (Part I, Part II), which is insightful and worth your time to watch if you like geeking out about that sort of stuff.
Focusing on the actual songs of Paracosm, as with most albums this one is front-loaded. Outside of the 80 second instrumental intro “Entrance,” the first four actual songs on the record could each serve as potential singles. It’s fitting that “It All Feels Right” really kicks things off, as the track is a spiritual (but not really sonic) cousin to the most popular Washed Out song to date, “Feel It All Around,” which you may recognize as the theme to Portlandia. Both are relaxed but bouncy in their tempo, and lyrically invite you to “feel” positive about life. One of the things that’s more apparent on the new album are Greene’s lyrics, which are never without a touch of reverb but are still clearer than any previous records. If you pay close enough attention to what’s being said, there is some realization that maybe these words would be better if we couldn’t hear them so well. Lines like, “Weekend’s almost here now / It’s getting warmer outside / It all feels right,” might as well appear on the next Black Eyed Peas single because they’re so pedestrian. This has been Greene’s biggest problem since day one, and unlike the forward progress in composition and live instrumentation, he doesn’t seem to be making any effort to improve his writing skills. We understand the theme, along with the overall vibe of a song, is going to place emphasis on laid back, fun in the sun with friends. It’s a great thing to be known for, but it starts to come across as really repetitive the closer you look.
What saves “It All Feels Right” and many of the other poorly worded songs on Paracosm are the arrangements. Official single “Don’t Give Up” does a particularly spectacular job with this, resulting in such a complex melody you’ll keep discovering new layers buried within it several listens later. That chorus is an incredible earworm too. While “Weightless” may not be the most engaging track from the first half of the album, the mixture of synths creates an overall sound that skirts the line between M83 and Cocteau Twins. If it’s commercially viable you’re looking for, “All I Know” might just be the poppiest Washed Out song ever, and it doesn’t feel like anything was sacrificed or lost to get to that point. It’s impressive in its own way, and gives us a glimpse into a potential future for this project where commercial accessibility leads to a broad fan base and hordes of commercial opportunities (see again, M83). “Great Escape” does a fantastic job of tapping into the more soulful side of Greene’s vision, even if that means conjuring up memories of Marvin Gaye classics in the process. Sure it might draw some unfavorable comparisons, but at the same time it adds layers to what we’ve already heard while not straying very far from the overall relaxed and tropical vibe.
As Paracosm starts to wrap up around the lengthy title track, the tempo slows and the synths pretty much take things into cruise control. It doesn’t necessarily get boring, but it can feel a bit whitewashed (word use intentional) and eerily reminiscent of some moments on Within and Without. You could argue that these final songs help to balance out the record, set against the pop-oriented first half. It all flows well thematically, but just because you have that doesn’t automatically make it good. It just makes it more bearable. The positive outlook is that this is the overall best and most advanced Washed Out record to date. It’s issues involving poorly written lyrics, Greene’s limited/always obscured vocal range, and pacing issues towards the end all ultimately pale in comparison to the goal of this music, which is to provide a soundtrack to your relaxing day of fun in the sun. That’s one thing it definitely succeeds at, and what kind of people would we be if we yelled at him for it?