Do you recall when people were trying to suggest that the chillwave/glo-fi sound was the future of music? The thought was that this wasn’t just another hyped subgenre but instead something that would become an evolutionary sea change. Personally, I chalked it up to more blowhards talking out of their asses, and assumed the chatter would die down like it always does, when the “next big sound” arrives. That hasn’t necessarily hit just yet, but the electronic sound with the lo-fi production is dying a slow death. Some artists, such as Memory Tapes, appear either slow or entirely unreactive to this evolution, using their most recent full lengths or EPs to hold steadfast in the same sounds they first arrived on scene with. Others, such as Toro Y Moi, have played it much smarter by upgrading to a far more clean-cut and “normal” approach. It’s a survival tactic, but it’s also a great way of showing that underneath the poorly produced exterior lies an album’s worth of highly catchy and easy to love synth-pop songs. This is where Washed Out comes in. The project under which Ernest Greene operates, Washed Out’s sound has been very much a direct indicator of what the name suggests. As such, you might expect Greene to stick with that same path for the new record “Within and Without”. The good news is that music is about so much more than just a name.
Freshly signed to Sub Pop Records thanks to two strong EPs worth of chillwave, Washed Out was given access to a professional studio and other such monetary advantages to help create “Within and Without”. The results are as you might expect – glossy and vibrant, with the synths riding up front and the vocals not much farther behind. It’s dance music, but not nearly in the traditional sense of the word. Subtlety is the name of the game, and the melodies will often slyly sneak up on you and snatch your attention when you least expect them to. There are no immediate hooks or blatant singles like “Feel It All Around” was on the “Life of Leisure” EP. Instead, a track like “Soft” may pass you by on the first go-around as being nice to listen to, but ultimately unmemorable. Then you’ll give it two more close listens, perhaps once with headphones, and suddenly that melody just won’t leave you alone. That’s just one example out of several across the album that reward multiple listens, drawing you in the more attention you devote to it. The relaxed pace is a big part of what makes “Within and Without” work as well, and there’s a certain truth contained within the album cover that features two people lying naked together in the heat of passion. Making love to things like the title track or “You and I” is perfectly sensible and nearly encouraged. But even if you don’t have somebody to get it on with while listening to this album, the sheer ambiance and warmth of it is great to put on at a party or in the background while you’re working or even after a long day where you need to relax. Despite the adjustment in fidelity, this is still CHILLwave after all, and the point is sort of missed if you don’t “chill out” while listening to it.
One of the issues this record runs into is that it might be heard as overly smooth by some, the better production values actually reducing the effectiveness of the material. There is the potential for the entire 40 minute album to slide right past without much notice, but that’s more the result of a poor attention span than it is poor content. From the small bit of cello on “Far Away” through much of the live percussion that unveils itself via a song like “Echoes”, it’s the little things that make “Within and Without” the best set of recordings from Washed Out yet. And even in spite of the better sound quality, that doesn’t make Greene’s vocals a whole lot clearer or more discernable. Between some attached reverb and the placement of the synths and other elements higher in the mix, you’ll likely still be left wanting if the hope was to comb over each and every word and the potential meanings behind them. Greene isn’t a bad singer by any means, but it’s clear that he’d like the focus to be squarely on melody. Besides, you can pretty much already discern from themes and song titles that these songs are about love and longing and summertime and the general sadness of time passing. Sometimes words don’t do those emotions justice anyways. To me, this record is the sonic equivalent of swimming underwater in a crystal clear pool on a sunny day. If that doesn’t seem like an amazing idea to you, then maybe this album or Washed Out in general just won’t click in the proper way. For everyone else, be warned that there’s only a couple months left of summer during which this album will be at its peak enjoyment level.