Review: Washed Out – ‘Paracosm’

washed out paracosm
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opinion by DREW MALMUTH

The last decade has forever changed the way musicians think about genre. It was once a reliable indicator of a band’s sound and often an encapsulation of anything from geographic origin to fashion tendencies. Being a part of new wave, or no wave, or hip-hop meant something for the artists involved. This connection to genre has become increasingly tenuous as more musicians form careers independent of any particular scene or permanent aesthetic. Genre isn’t useful for people making beats in their bedrooms. This has been born out with chillwave perhaps more clearly than any other genre. Supposedly created by a writer at Hipster Runoff (who later mocked it), the title of “chillwave” described solitary musicians that made lo-fi pop music composed of late-80s synths and shoegaze vocals. Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around” was the sound’s poster child. But three years after releasing that song, Ernest Greene has made it clear that being ascribed to a genre is not going to inform the music he makes. Paracosm is an expansive record that takes elements of earlier material and bleeds it into a psychedelic-pop daydream.

“Entrance” opens the album with the sound of birds and soft chimes. These natural tones are a subtle break from Within and Without, an album that inhabited isolated bedroom spaces and dark, dank warehouses. The album immediately takes a cheerier, more bubbly posture, ultimately instilling that style into nearly every element of the album. Ernest Greene’s vocals, normally obscured in reverb and difficult to decipher, are, well, still difficult to decipher. But the use of analog as opposed to digital reverb makes his words less shrouded and it’s possible to make out lyrics that are joyful and childlike. On “It All Feels Right” he sings: “Meet up with the old crowd/ Musics playing so loud/ It all feels right.” Instead of building off of isolated emotion as most of his songs have done, Greene is trying to bring the listener into the pleasing experiences that inform Paracosm. Sitting around thinking about the ocean. Falling quietly in love with someone. Paracosm is about simple moments that are beautiful. It is not always as immersive as Within and Without, but it creates a different, more smile-inducing experience.

Stylistically, the addition of live instruments has made the sound more psychedelic rock than heady dance music. “It All Feels Right” uses off-beat guitar patterns and a distinctly non-electronic drum beat to create a song perfectly suited to soundtrack a stay on a tropical island. A number of other tunes feel like they are incomplete without a jovial crowd clapping the beat in unison. “Don’t Give Up” builds a dreamy chorus out of analog synths that are both layered and aimlessly swirling. It inhabits an eclectic range of sounds: the gauzy melodies of Toro y Moi; Kevin Parker’s spaced-out synths; a sweeping, U2-style chorus; percussion and bass reminiscent of a Dub track. Without needing to establish himself as unique, Greene is finding time to draw from a wide swath of influences. “Great Escape” is an aptly titled take on breezy dream pop. It isn’t moving or even particularly affecting but it is eminently enjoyable and represents the carefree attitude that pervades Paracosm.

The title of the album refers to the creation of detailed, imaginary worlds. It implies a sense of escape, an ability to forget the mundane and fill one’s thoughts with something new. The best songs on Paracosm vividly etch out the world that Washed Out would like to inhabit. The opening of “All I Know” feels like a sunrise. Things then expand into Greene’s story of trying to escape a person that has inhabited his life. Not an inherently happy theme but the song takes the form of a release from the subject matter’s tension rather than a fixation on it. “Paracosm” creates an imaginative atmosphere with a harp-like synth that sways within the mix. This psychedelia coupled with the sittin-around-the-campfire feel of the rhythm guitar makes for an all together blissful, and entrancing song. There is no definitive way to describe the place Paracosm is trying to create. And that’s probably the point.

In making an album that suits sun-filled barbecues, Washed Out had to forgo some of the elements that made Within and Without so successful. Songs like “Echoes” and “Soft” focused on rhythm and texture in subdued but electrifying ways. Very little of Paracosm picks up on the bedroom dance aesthetic that has marked most of Greene’s music. It’s true that “Paracosm” lays a groovy bass line over a hip-hop-indebted drum beat and “Weightless” somehow creates a head snapping rhythm using swaths of whimsical synth lines. But these songs feel like remnants of older tendencies rather than an integral part of the music Washed Out is now intent on making. Greene’s shift toward beach-friendly melodies and more classic rock arrangements results in some gorgeous, shimmering moments. But it also results in Washed Out losing some of the gloomy energy that gave its sound teeth. Not unlike other inaugural members of the chillwave genre, Greene has simply become a pop musician – a pop musician with a unique style and gift with emotive melodies.

“All I need is some peace of mind.” This lyric washes over all of Paracosm, an album that tries to find peace even when it isn’t called for. The songs are intricately built but they also feel distinctly impermanent; little snippets of soft static open and close a number of tracks, like the songs are coming in and out focus. Where Within and Without inspired twilight make-out sessions and hip swaying in dark bedrooms Paracosm will hopefully invigorate a sense of adventure. As Greene has said, there are times when there is a “sense that something special is happening, and that it’s fleeting and beautiful, and that it might not happen again.” This album tries to grab hold of that feeling, if only for a little while. [B+]

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