Warming up its chillwave, Washed Out still mumbles
Washed Out’s “It All Feels Right” is something of a revelation. Released as the first single from the new album, Paracosm, the song bops along to a loping beat buoyed by sunny acoustic-guitar strumming and swathes of woozy Mellotron string sounds. Most strikingly, when Ernest Greene sings the chorus (“Close my eyes/Think about the old times/What’s it all about?/The feeling when it all works out”), you can actually understand what he’s saying.
That hasn’t always been the case with Washed Out’s songs. On previous singles such as “Feel It All Around” (aka the opening theme of Portlandia) and the sublime “Amor Fati”, Greene drew out his vowels, layered his voice, and bathed everything in reverb until the vocal became just another instrument in the mix. And he wasn’t exactly what you’d call a shouter in the first place.
“When I first started writing songs I never intended on singing,” Greene says, on the line from his home in Athens, Georgia. “I didn’t really consider myself a singer at all. I was just kind of recording the demo vocals as a holding place until someone else came and sang. I did it enough where I started developing my own style that was very much about layering. The way that I sing is very mumbled-together, and so I guess I’m kind of stuck with it now. The Washed Out thing happened really quickly and I wasn’t really actively promoting the songs. I didn’t think of them as any more than demos, really, and it sort of became a thing on its own.”
The “thing” that it became was dubbed “chillwave” by certain music blogs, and Greene found himself invariably named as one of the creators, along with Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi, of the vaguely defined genre. “I definitely wasn’t trying to be the poster child for anything,” he now says. “It just sort of happened that way.”
Whether or not Paracosm counts as chillwave is for the likes of Hipster Runoff to figure out. What’s certain is that Greene has morphed the synthesizer-and-sequenced-beats aesthetic of Washed Out’s first full-length, 2011’s Within and Without, into something warmer and more organic-sounding. And he has done so by making incremental changes—some pedal-steel-guitar twang here, an actual human being playing the drums there—rather than tearing up the blueprint.
“I never want to just make a complete change, like a reactionary kind of record,” Greene explains in his sleepy southern drawl. “I want to still have a thread connecting everything I’ve done, so I want to embrace the more stylistic kind of things about Washed Out. Obviously, I never want to make the same record twice. I want to keep moving forward. That’s the real challenge, I think. So there are a few songs on this new record that are a little more boldly pop songs, and it was a struggle figuring out how up-front we could put the vocals and still have it be a Washed Out song. It could have been even more pop, but that’s the thing; it needed some of that mumble stuff happening to be a Washed Out song.”