Washed Out Within and Without

[Sub Pop; 2011]

Styles: chillwave, downtempo, electronica, retro synth
Others: Air, Erlend Øye, Neon Indian, Small Black

Why is it that music is never quite as transcendental as we would like it to be? While we’re never quite able to dissolve into the flow of notes (chemically-enhanced moments aside), we keep on chasing that elusive thrill, the ‘oceanic feeling’ that sonic experience promises to provide, despite the fact that it never actually arrives (if we are to believe Freud, this would demonstrate an immaturity, an escapist desire to return to the blissful narcissistic unity of the mother as opposed to the mature rationality and separation of the father). If indeed this is a regressive pastime, it’s a true chasing of the dragon, ultimately (painfully) futile but with its own pleasures of exquisite tension and expectation, that is, jouissance. This is a gratification that is not too dissimilar to that provided by nostalgia, by the longing for a past whose transcendent and seemingly lost pleasures exist/ed nowhere except in the memory of them — and in the dreamy summer of ought-nine, a plethora of chillwave bands tried their lackadaisicalest to evoke both that pleasure and its unattainability.

Despite the inevitable and rather unjust critical backlash, the Freudian gender policing inherent in the critical opprobrium that soon rained down upon these (mostly male) starry-eyed and hopeless romantics, there was not a small amount of work produced at this time which was deeply affective/effective. The cream of this lush crop was Ernest Greene (a.k.a. Washed Out)’s Life of Leisure EP, which came as close to actually managing the transcendence mentioned above as music can. So the longing thus inspired was particularly sharp or, more accurately, double-edged, in relation to the release of Greene’s debut LP.

I’m sorry to say that these expectations had something of the tease to them. Within and Without continues the haze of 80s-influenced hypnotic synth, downtempo hip-hop beats, and all-around chilled-out euphoria that we associate with the genre, but where Life of Leisure tempered this with unusual minor keys and insistent rhythms, f/using disparity to create a near-perfect whole, these latter elements have all but disappeared on the present work. We are, rather, somewhat closer to dance music as such — in the house-y strings and chords that surface here and there, for example, or the mild tranciness of “Before” — at least until closer “A Dedication” strips it back to a hypnagogic piano ballad. This mood and method is not disagreeable by any means, but it doesn’t hit that same sweet point — or rather, it sweetens the point a little too much.

In saying all of this, I don’t want to imply that Within and Without is not worth listening to — just that it’s more pleasant than arresting. Tracks like the tellingly-named “Echoes” and “Soft” retain the gorgeousness and delicate touch that yours truly was hanging out for (while the reworked duet “You And I” is another highlight, though that again speaks to the pleasures of Leisure). On the topic of hanging out, Greene set the bar extremely high for himself, and had I encountered this album before his earlier work I would no doubt have experienced the euphoria whose absence I’ve been bewailing. But like a fiend forever chasing the high of the first hit, both chemically and nostalgically pedestalized, I find myself disappointed. Was it inevitable? You be the judge.

Links: Washed Out - Sub Pop

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