It was the middle of 2009, arguably the worst year for music in all the 2000’s. Albums kept pouring in but hardly anything was sticking. As if this feeling of stagnation was contagious to all genres, the summer yielded a plethora of artists that were playing a brand of pop that steeped itself in hazy electronics and indistinct vocals. If nostalgia came in a can, these groups would have sprayed their songs with it until they were thoroughly soaked. Nostalgia was their lifeblood, and the movement, formally known as chillwave, was either a refreshing deviation in texture or a further degradation of indie pop, depending on whom you asked. However, with all these arguments taking place, all that knew of the genre’s emergence could agree on one thing: that it was all ushered in through Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around”.
While far from revelatory, “Feel It All Around” always had an advantage because it did an excellent job of embodying pure bliss. Its analog keyboards were muted, its guitar chords light. Like much of the music that tried to copy its success, it seemed to embody less the good times of the past and more of the dreams recalling those good times, a song that could only truly be appreciated while watching something fun happen in slow motion as opposed to just experiencing it. It was a very agreeable summer jam, but I don’t think even Washed Out mastermind, Ernest Greene, knew how influential it would turn out to be.
Two years later, the state of chillwave in the musical lexicon is just as harshly debated as its musical merits were when it first emerged. There is no doubt that what is called the “blissed out” sound has had a significant effect on this decade’s popular music. However, if you ask this critic, that influence has not been particularly fruitful since that fateful summer of 2009. Many of the genre’s defining qualities have been dissolved into the sounds of lo-fi garage bands that no one should really care about, Toro Y Moi’s follow-up to his 2010 debut was good but not great, and Washed Out’s finally released debut album is hardly something to marvel at.
Nothing on Within and Without gets remotely close to the fervent buzz of “Feel It All Around”. Instead, that track’s catchiness sounds divided evenly amongst the album’s nine tracks, so that each has its own interesting qualities, but nothing particularly stands out. The percussion that punctuates Greene’s lines in “Far Away” gives the track a tactile bounce, “Amor Fati” has a decently convincing sunniness to it and “Eyes Be Closed” has a smooth enough groove, but these qualities, clearly, are not very definitive. As a result, it isn’t long before Within and Without begins to sag.
This is mostly due to Greene’s disposition throughout the album. “Feel It All Around” was perfect as a single, because it didn’t need to do much else besides cruise off some well-deserved good vibes. However, in full-length album mode, this cruising sounds like Greene’s constantly on the defensive, so it’s very easy to lose interest when he’s not making a good enough case for his music. All the man’s vocals are swathed in reverb and echo, making his harmonies sound like rote imitations of the most anonymous chillwave bands. You get the impression that he’s unsure of himself, so it makes sense that he would write a song called “Soft” and fit it with innocuous genre signifiers or a song called “Echoes” and play into every lame archetype its title suggests. Within and Without shows that Greene certainly has a knack for sweet, catchy songs, but it’s one thing to play alongside them and another to turn them into a façade.
For a guy who basically started an entire genre with a single song, Washed Out does not display much confidence on Within and Without. I’m surprised its cover is so confrontation, because the album’s music is not so much something to make love to, but to wish you were making love to. Greene seems reluctant to own his presence, so it’s fitting that the album’s best tracks feature female vocals, such as the unintelligible emoting that makes “Before” an album highlight. It’s why it’s such a relief to hear Greene discard his transient electronics on final track “A Dedication” in favor of a piano to deliver a sweetly sung ballad. In it, his vocals ring clearer and hit an emotional center harder than anything else on Within and Without. It makes you think if Greene’s not willing to take center stage, at least his piano is.