Washed Out ‘Within and Without’ – Review

6 Aug

Here’s the scenario; you start making music in your bedroom. You don’t expect anyone else to hear the songs. You give yourself a name that describes the music you’re making and then you send the mp3s to a friend, who posts them online. You become popular. Your songs get officially released. A scene builds up around you. You get asked to play festivals, so you ensemble a band and then you sign a record deal. The world expects.

Such is the enviable position of Washed Out (previously just Ernest Greene, now a full band). Except, in interviews, he makes the whole experience sound like water torture. I keep having to remind myself that this is only Washed Out’s debut album, they have been sitting on ‘Within and Without’ for two years (the zeitgeist defining ‘Life of Leisure’ was only a weighty e.p). In that time there has been a critical backlash against Washed Out that has vilified them, and the chilwave genre,  in much the same way that Klaxons and Nu-rave got vilified a few years ago. Most of the bands from the chilwave/glo-fi scene have either abandoned ship or set up camp in a cave somewhere, waiting to see what Washed Out’s (the scene’s natural leaders) next move will be.

It’s a story that has some striking similarities to that of Bon Iver (one man makes an album alone, becomes popular, expands band, becomes even more popular etc). They made the transition swimmingly, retaining what made the debut so successful whilst expanding their soundscapes. Washed Out follow a similar, if slightly more modest, path. On ‘Within and Without’ they are sticking to their guns whilst broadening their horizons. They were once defined by their nostalgically romantic imagery – cassette tapes, polaroids with faded colours, tanned women, wide smiles, a sense of haziness and lost happiness. A kind of otherness. There is still a sense of otherness to the picture that graces the cover of ‘Within and Without’. It is a photograph of a couple in an intimate position – It doesn’t feel real or natural – it looks staged, clinical, too perfect. It is telling that the picture originally accompanied a magazine article on the best sex positions, as it has the same glossy fakeness that defines most fashion publications. Likewise, there is something slightly staged, unreal and other about the music.

‘Eyes Be Closed, ‘Amor Fati’ and ‘Echoes’ are prystine pop songs as viewed through a lens; so straightforward and obvious in certain respects but slightly odd, calculated and perplexing in other ways.  It’s hard to pin down what it is that makes the music this way, perhaps it’s the dreamy multi-tracked vocals, or the dated drum tracks, or the reverb soaked synths – perhaps its all those things.  ‘Life of Leisure’ was essentially blurry, hazy, party music but ‘Within and Without’ is after-party music. It’s relaxed, less distorted, and less busy, all of which chimes with the un-showy, ambiguous and simple lyrics that deal with love and memories of love.

All in all ‘Within and Without’ is a smooth blend of ingredients, but I wonder if it isn’t a little too smooth. Compared to the lo-fi adventures of ‘Life of Leisure’ this new album is just a bit boring – the chill in chillwave is too obvious. It gets off to a lively start but it grinds to a halt at the end; the title track and ‘A Dedication’ make the final third quite monotonous. All of the songs start to blend into one, and more than a couple of tracks sound far too similar to one another. In my review of ‘Life of Leisure’ I noted that the six songs sounded quite samey, and I wondered if Washed Out were a one trick pony. Unfortunately ‘Within and Without’ does little to answer that question, in fact it makes me question it even more.

Earnest made ‘Life of Leisure’ under the impression that no-one would hear those songs, and he has made this album KNOWING that LOTS of people would hear them, and it shows in the subtle differences that seperate the two records. The songs still sound quite samey, and this is certainly a less distinctive record, but in most respects Washed Out have refined their sound and improved as a band. By loosing some of the haziness that defined chillwave they have lost a little of what made them so interesting, and if they continue down the road away from that genre then they will need more tricks up their sleeves, because their songwriting alone wont sustain them for long, not on this form at least. But for now Washed Out remain a fascinating band.

7/10

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