Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Washed Out - Paracosm


No matter what the genre, there will always be those select few artists - shoehorned into said tag or not - that rise above the preset set upon them, and accomplish something that's simply impossible to categorize under a unitary generic: a feeling of awe. 2011's Within & Without - the blisteringly sunny blaze of synth melodies, analog beats and dreamy vocals that was Ernest Greene's debut under the Washed Out moniker - was not just one of the best albums of the chillwave movement, but also one of the genre's finest reminders as to how powerful such simple pop-fuelled ideas and easily-fortified structures, can bring a man to the brink of wreckage. I experienced these teutonic swells of mood for large spells on that record, and like me, countless more found its lenience towards the flair of past summers to be one of the great sounds of 2011. In saying that, I fully welcome Greene's shift in objective - as the title to his highly-anticipated follow-up Paracosm offers - to something more enclosed yet detailed for us the individual; a plane for which one is removed from the harshness of reality, so as to allow our heart (and our head) to find content in this fantastical, artificial realm of our making. It's here then, that Washed Out slowly (and perhaps hesitantly) removed himself from the claustrophobic loom of his debut's success and finds his pop-niesh synth harmonies taking on a more concrete and conceptual structure in composition.

The great thing to Greene's technique though is that even with a new chapter - or in this case, a new plane of focus - on the cards, Entrance (as it rightly suggests) invites rather than declares. The spaciousness of bird tweets, somber glockenspiels and mellow harp strings gives the album's opening monologue that same lavish painterly quality, but it still offers itself more the sunrise build-up to whatever it is lying beyond the summer-drenched horizon, as opposed to an individual piece intended for direct precedence. The way it transitions so smoothly into It All Feels Right as a result, immediately sparks intimacy but at the same time doesn't ignore the open space with which we've been offered. And amid the track's crisp opening of percussion, that soon blossoms into this reverb-soaked swatch of translucent drums, synthesizer chords and hidden instrumentation, Greene's vocals feel more concise and focused than they did on his debut. His lyrical flow still carries that hypnotic, side-to-side sway to it, yet the way he cuts through the 60's slur (carefully, with a degree of self-assurance) like a warm knife through ink-dyed butter, the composition keeps to its dizzying charm, while this newer focus on maintaining rhythm and structure, to break through.

Don't Give Up is where Greene fully explores the composed potential that the likes of synth pop and psychedelic tone often invigorate a track with. The percussion takes on a more tropical texture, but feels more focused and intentionally positioned than previous tracks. Here, it's one of the first sounds to reach the listener, and the crisp, directness in its textures emphasize that overwhelming washed ashore vibe emanating throughout. In contrast, Greene himself seems to take a more back-foot approach to his vocal delivery - his tone emanating a lesser amount of emotion, but fortunately still delivering a kind of powdery texture to the track's integral sonic distancing throughout. But for those worried Washed Out is someone who pries on hiding behind his instrumentation - as the previous track might have alluded to in the eyes of the most skeptical of listeners - will only need to turn to follower Weightless to see Greene's prolific knack for bringing the most [emotionally] out of his sound. Here, the synths garner both a familiar glaze of enshrouding tones, but this time are greeted charmingly by accompanying group-of-three scurries of electronics that add an innocent compassion to what is one of Greene's most intense and romanticized of tracks. And it's his vocals especially that truly come into their own; Greene's rich, opening revel of honest emotion and simple lyrical delivery adding to the song's overwhelming feeling for wanting something close-net, but intently comforting at the same time.

Admittedly, tracks like these aren't as direct or as quick to attract the listener's mood as say Amor Fati's melancholic synths, or A Dedication's tainted mumble of piano did so brilliantly at conjuring, from the word go. Greene's sound this time is more patient and calculated; like the opener, offering rather than declaring said set expressions and running with the theme in this more structural, conceptualized manner. It does, unfortunately, feel a little tainted coming to this record for the first, or even second time (those coming to it on the latter with more a case of hoping to be proved wrong over their initial doubt or squirmed indecision on Washed Out's clear deviation) and finding that former impedance Within & Without focused so strongly on, is lacking here. With a track like All I Know - which still like those before it, transitions perfectly as if the record is indeed one vast landscape joined together - Greene's efforts unfortunately come off a tad more riskier in keeping listeners attached and attracted to what he's so clearly unveiling. The track still makes use of some knowledgeable key changes and heart-to-heart relation with the music's tone, but the instrumentation as well as the vocal delivery, don't offer as much an escapist charm or brisk integrity to its delivery. Great Escape too lacks in such fruitful connection. Even with its warmful flutter of synthesizers and textural percussion, the aesthetic comes off as invigorating or exciting as flat champagne. But worse, Greene's own delivery at parts feels lack-luster in its directness, and in others outright monotonous - lazy even in how little effort is put into pushing the track's potentially soothing atmosphere towards the listener.


Paracosm however, shows a little more backbone in delivering its intentions in a way the listener can understand. Though while the production and layout of the music remains the same, there's more a validity in Greene's positioning of drums and effects. And with that, how he keeps to this same sustaining of a more limited range of vocal tone alongside this more subtle strumming of guitar and hypnotic sway of harp strings flushing through the track like they're caught in a cloudy, reverb-soaked whirlwind. Falling Back likewise reminds us Washed Out can respectfully write verse/chorus melodies with such stretched-out lacings of strings and muffled background noise. Though while I respect Greene's take on this, I feel listeners will come away (as I have) expecting him to have offered a little more in variety - his use of tone vocally not so much different from the tracks before it with its high-reaching, arms-out exposition of thought and emotion. With All Over Now, Washed Out's outing into the colorfully spectral day-dream of personal fantasies meets its tentative, and quite distressingly melancholic end. But as Greene's lower-toned voice captures that accepted reality of the situation well - slavered beats of bass and percussion hammering away - the accompanying welling of glockenspiel and keyboards that attempt to keep this blissful, content charade from vanishing, perfectly capture that climatic parting-of-ways between the listener and his/her World. Like paint thinned out so much it starts to trickle and drip off the canvas, the instrumentation feels withdrawn, losing its strength like it's already beginning to vanish from conscious sight. And that wilting-away of the image - of this co-existence with one's self and one's fantastical ideas - is what allows Washed Out's melancholic charisma to emanate its harder-hitting quality.

There's definitely some promise, and resulting success, in Greene's decision to flesh his sound out towards more conventional song structures. Further to that, there is some interesting deliveries of vocal tone both on a sonic level and one that makes use of the emotional range of his music which - from his debut's content - has already proven itself to conjure mood even at the most simplest of structures. But where I feel Paracosm lacks in making that conclusive and lasting conviction, is through Washed Out's [in]ability to fully connect with his audience here, and ensure things - from his end - don't become too indulgent or personal beyond comprehension. Thus, where Greene unfortunately disconnects himself and his music from the listener, the once soothing or melancholic urges of his sound come off a victim to their own strength: that ability to withdraw and envelop its surroundings towards something far more personal and escaped. But where the songs successfully delve into synth pop-like maintaining of rhythm and hook, where his debut captivated in its brief snapshots of episodic summer vibes and dominating emotional detail, the sophomore - despite its smooth transitioning between this fantastical realm's differing areas - doesn't entirely hold as much the same humane, immediance of personality, and flair of colour. But hey, Ernest Greene is still a young musician and producer trying out new things. Should we meet next with the two records combined, now that might require more than just the sunscreen and shades.
~Jordan

7.2 

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