I’ll start with a disclaimer: I don’t care for the word “chillwave.” It’s as if people think mashing together the names of any two established genres will unfailingly give you something that sounds clever, but it goes without saying that not every attempt to sort and categorize is a good one. Plus, Ernest Greene’s music deserves a better tag. While doing my best to avoid use of the C-word, I’ll concede that his debut LP as Washed Out is one of the most relaxed releases of the year. It’s edgeless and all enveloping, like a warm gust, which makes for a lithe, modestly engrossing experience.
Greene has shown before that he is a gifted songwriter, but there are stretches, particularly in the album’s middle third, where he drags his feet and the lack of hooks becomes tougher to conceal. While he seems to enjoy smothering his songs, he’s at his best when he places emphasis on melody instead of atmosphere. “Amor Fati” has an infectious vocal line that makes it an instant standout. “Don’t try to fight / Tonight you’ll fall,” he croons in the song’s opening moments, and you’re all too happy to comply.
It’s not a stretch to assume that that reverb is Greene’s favourite effect; it defines Within and Without. Nine effervescent pop tunes have been placed into an acid bath of reverb and left to decay. Its first thirty seconds sum it up pretty nicely. The trampoline synths and metronomic percussion that materialize on opener “Eyes Be Closed” appear throughout the record in different incarnations. Such uniform production values leave it up to the listener to parse out the minute distinctions, with diminishing returns. It’s a little too easy to zone out to, but maybe that’s the idea (just look at that artwork).
When Greene tinkers with the formula, you get the sense that he has more to offer than what’s present. The majority of the ideas that wander into the scene unannounced are just poking out from the fog. It may come across as perfunctory to some, but the stuttering female voice on “Before,” the twinkling xylophones and strings on “Far Away,” and the gently stumbling piano line on “A Dedication” all strike me as more untapped potential than anything. They offer a glimpse at the underutilized cache of sounds that Greene has yet to embrace, but hopefully will one day. The lyrics, while largely indecipherable, are sincere when you can make them out; you believe what he’s saying.
So while the stylistic homogeneity erodes its high points, and it sometimes feels like one giant song, Within and Without harbours some rich, emotive sounds under its monochrome canopy. The songs are strong enough and Greene is, ahem, green enough that it’s forgivable at this stage in the game. But with the increasing popularity of chillwave (so close), I expect that this record will become something of a template, and Washed Out risks getting lost in the crowd if the songwriting can’t set the project apart from the multitude of bedroom dreamers who are sure to follow suit.