Photos by Robert McCraw
Ernest Greene, making music under the moniker “Washed Out,” doesn’t seem to be all that interested in attention. This attitude suits his plush, fuzzy and dreamlike music well, and “Mister Mellow” is a fitting album title for music that feels not unlike a slice of butter melting on top of a big ol’ pile of flapjacks.
If you don’t know Washed Out, you may have heard “Feel It All Around,” the title music for IFC’s “Portlandia,” also found on the “Life of Leisure” EP released in 2009. Greene has evolved since then, as a musician and otherwise, and it shows. This is Washed Out’s third studio album, and as one of the early adopters of the “chillwave” aesthetic, Greene still has something to say.
In Washed Out’s performance at Cat’s Cradle on July 9, that comfortable bedroom vibe never really went away. The space was small enough to afford an intimate feeling, while the sheer openness and direct appeal of the music and accompanying visuals lent well to an album built around the idea of spacing out. “Mister Mellow” is being touted as a “visual album,” akin to “The Wall” and “Lemonade.” The stage setup includes multiple Kinect units taken straight from Microsoft’s Xbox platform that transform on-stage movements into on-screen performance enhanced by animations matching the pulse of the music. Silhouettes and seemingly unconnected images of cheeseburgers and cityscapes along with clocks and claymation bleed and blend to form what genuinely feels like a dream pieced together. Like Voltron passing a joint between pilots, Washed Out is a legendary defender of the vibe. The visual component of “Mister Mellow” has a handmade feel to it that meshes well with Greene’s homebrew sensibilities. He did, after all, find his start in a bedroom studio.
There’s not a whole lot of surprises on “Mister Mellow,” but then again, that’s never been Greene’s style. He’s always been a bit on-the-nose, and album art featuring a hat that clearly reads “chillwave,” assorted bumper stickers with messages like “Feeling Fine” and what seems to be a bar of Xanax send signals that come through loud and clear. This is music meant to dive deep into the subject of boredom, of too much stress and a paradoxical lack of it. It’s echoes of a working class that’s in need of something to drift along to, and nothing feels out-of-place or impersonal during this extended daydream.
As a successful musician in an ecosystem where there isn’t too much competition, Greene doesn’t stand to lose a whole lot. “Mister Mellow” reads differently than early releases when Washed Out was still in nascent stages – all clear visions and deep-blue sensibilities – or from the earnest songwriting aspirations found in “Paracosm.” It’s a self-aware kind of softness that’s found in this music, with simple track titles like “Floating By” and “Zonked” illustrating points just as much as their accompanying multimedia presentation does. “Mister Mellow” is an earth tone day trip into a cruising sense of psychedelia, familiar and comforting and forgettable in just the right way. One track becomes another with a minimum of turbulence, and the mesmerizing chilled-out quality gives way to slight disorientation as you suddenly realize you’re hearing a new song. Layers build on one another, percussion on percussion of melodic samples and synths, with occasional peeks under the hood as layers are stripped away mid-song to reveal what’s actually driving the groove.
Taken as a whole, the music has the distinct feel of a quarter-life crisis, of weighing the benefits and drawbacks that come along with change, with growing up. It’s often immersive and speaks directly in contrast to overblown and over-dramatized life, a counterpoint to the absurdity found in self-perception in the age of social media. “Mister Mellow” speaks to those who grew up wanting to share art, to create, to make a living off of saying what they needed to say through art. It directly relates to how all those people who didn’t make it began to find solace in the constant performance that social media has become. It guides us through the highs and lows of a struggle that’s inherently a little ridiculous, if we’re all being honest. That’s what Greene conveys here: the humor in complacency and the boredom of contentment. How can we be bored, how can we be unhappy, when so many of our needs are being met so comparatively effortlessly?
“Mister Mellow” took two years to get here, but the wait produced an honest and appealing work. Stylish and often downtempo beats stay danceable, jazz fuses with hip-hop and house music as spoken word verses echo across the track. It’s over-saturated music meant to counteract over-stimulation, and that’s decidedly a good thing. Experienced live, it’s a great thing.