Washed Out, a Pioneer of Chillwave, Considers an Escape on ‘Mister Mellow’
Music as a refuge, music as stress relief, music as a drug or an adjunct to drugs: Ernest Greene, the songwriter who records as Washed Out, has always embraced those functions with a hint of ambivalence. His third Washed Out album, with the self-mocking title “Mister Mellow,” both proclaims its anodyne intentions and reveals misgivings behind them. It’s not just music for easy listening; it’s presented as something to pacify a bored, bummed-out work force. “Life goes by each and every day,” Mr. Greene sings in “Burn Out Blues.” “I need some time so I can find the way/to slow down, relax and clear my head.”
Washed Out’s songs have been plush and blurred, a little melted around the edges, ever since Mr. Greene inaugurated the minimovement that became known as chillwave with Washed Out’s first EPs in 2009. Mr. Greene’s early songs gave sampled 1970s pop and disco an echoey, wavery resurrection, as if yearning for the hedonistic 1970s that he was born too late — in 1982 — to experience. Successive Washed Out releases expanded Mr. Greene’s vocabulary across additional decades, incorporating live instruments and invoking psychedelia, trip-hop and ambient electronica: anything that could dissolve into a midtempo haze.
Four years after the release of Washed Out’s “Paracosm” — an immersion in introspective sonic bliss — “Mister Mellow” arrives as a “visual album” with videos for every track. The visuals are not a narrative, and certainly not a showcase for the self-effacing Mr. Greene; they are more like a light show, a collection of animations pulsing along with the music, echoing the reveries in the songs. Some feature faceless silhouettes as central figures; others conjure imaginary cityscapes, like “Get Lost,” a brightly oblivious Southern California montage of vintage cars, guys and girls.
The album opens with “Title Card,” an animated version of the album cover: a sunshine-yellow retro assemblage of smiley faces, anti-anxiety pills and buttons with slogans like “Don’t Worry Be Happy!” Tucked among them is a book — or is it a videocassette? — labeled “Work/Life Balance.” Some tracks aren’t so much songs as backdrops to logy voice-overs, like the one in “Down and Out” that explains, “Music plays a big part in keeping me happy or keeping me, just, from not flipping out and keeping me sane.”
On previous albums, Washed Out sometimes let Mr. Greene’s pop-song structures surface, delineating contrasting sections and developing peaks and valleys, albeit understated ones. “Mister Mellow” leans instead toward smoothness, the better to mesmerize and disorient. Throughout the album, Mr. Greene’s voice is just a modest part of the mix, often multitracked to make it more remote and impersonal, and the productions are thickly layered with percussion, keyboards and electronics from multiple sources and eras. Sometimes, at the start or end of a song, the music is briefly stripped back to reveal its complex inner workings.
“Floating By” casually meshes beats from bossa nova and hip-hop amid flickering electronic glissandos; “Million Miles Away” tops a slow, trudging beat with countless little trickling motifs from guitars and keyboards, as Mr. Greene sings about longing to find “a better place.” Only one song quietly stands out from the album’s flow: “Hard to Say Goodbye.” It has a Latin and disco undercurrent topped by strings and a blithe sample of a woman singing, “bop-ba-ya,” but it holds bitter accusations about betrayal and breaking up.
“Mister Mellow” is by no means the aural tranquilizer that its lyrics and packaging pretend to call for. The songs, for all their pretty, prismatic intricacies, are remote and forlorn. And the voice-overs are intermittent reminders of the drab everyday life that they only wish they could escape.