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There’s something lacklustre about Washed Out’s Within and Without, in the most complimentary way possible. Not that Ernest Greene’s debut album isn’t emotional, or doesn’t sound complete, because it is, and it does. It is lacklustre though, in the sense that Greene seems to have pulled his sleeves over his hands, and rubbed the sheen away from the surface of his songs. Many of them sound like a melody being sung by someone with a mouth full of toffee, like classical music overheard on someone else’s earphones as you pass them in the street. Everything on Within and Without is a little bit muffled, and everything feels like a memory, re-discovered and slightly scuffed.
Ernest Greene first came to everyone’s attention when he uploaded some tracks to Myspace while living at his parents’ house in Georgia, back in 2009. His new work continues to capture the understated, rough-around-the-edges sound he built for himself in his bedroom, but also takes a thoughtful step forward, treading on the swells of orchestras and bounces of airy beats.
Although obviously more highly budgeted and carefully produced – the album was mixed by Ben Allen, who has also worked with Animal Collective and Gnarls Barkley – than earlier Washed Out material, this album still seems trapped within the four walls of its humble beginnings. With a mind-set of longing and regret carrying the listener from song to song, there is no real game-changer, no real direction; rather, the experience of listening to Within and Without is one of being bounced along by water, of being unsure where you’re going or how long it will take, although you’re enjoying the scenery. Simple tricks, samples and loops are at first tantalising, but occasionally end up over-used. The cut-off voice used on Before is initially a perfect shock, embodying those moments when something needs to be said, but you don’t remember what it is. After a while, though, if you focus too intently on the repetition, it becomes grating. Better to lie back on the raft and watch the sky, forgetting about the water that is carrying you.
This numbed, half-attentive effect of the album is characteristic of the chillwave, hypnagogic pop era that Washed Out sits firmly at the centre of; music that fits into our nostalgic culture of faded polaroids and vintage clothing with its hazy synths and pale vocals. Like a sepia photograph, the songs of Within and Without drift into one another in similar muted tones, and at times this makes for quiet, contemplative (some might say boring) listening. Amongst this white-washed backdrop, however, the album’s moments of genius become thrilling.
Euphoric vocals soar on Amor Fati, set against its jumpy beats and handclaps, making it a flushed moment of ecstasy in an otherwise relaxed narrative. A Dedication, meanwhile, which closes the album, sounds like a pianist playing in an empty room as the party dwindles away, and brings a new clarity to the record so suddenly that it catches in the listener’s throat. Lyrics begin to crack through the surface, becoming tangible and fresh.
The fact that most of the lyrics and tunes can’t be made out, though, seems to be Greene’s whole point. This album soundtracks summer afternoons when you’re alone and heady with nostalgia; it will bring your own memories out of you, will make them feel new again, and won’t interrupt you when you’re wholly immersed in those moments. That’s what Within and Without is – disguised as an album, it is actually a collection of moments, time-worn and well-loved, waiting to be re-lived.