There’s no nice way to say this, but during a busier week, Paracosm, the second album from Washed Out, wouldn’t have gotten that Album Of The Week nod. During next Tuesday’s new-release avalanche (Earl Sweatshirt! Superchunk! No Age! A$AP Ferg!), it would’ve been immediately lost in the shuffle. And indeed, it seems almost expressly designed to get lost in the shuffle. This is intricately sculpted soft-pop music, music about drift and indecision, overloaded with harps and keyboard squiggles and bird noises, sung in the sort of voice that suggests the split-second when you wake up from an afternoon nap and you’re not yet sure where you are or what day it is. I don’t like it as much as Washed Out’s first album, the gorgeously memory-dazed 2011 synthpop makeout collection Within And Without. I don’t even like it as much as Life Of Leisure, the 2010 EP that more or less accidentally defined chillwave the same way the first Ramones album more or less accidentally defined punk. And yet Paracosm is a good album with a few great moments. And more important than that, it’s an album that defines a mood, or a moment.
Chillwave, of course, became an internet punchline the second it became a genre — or maybe even before then, since I remember thinking to myself, “Oh god, am I going to have to start using ‘glo-fi’ now?” That’s just what happens now. A few artists play around with similar ideas and accidentally stumble their way into becoming an art movement, that movement gains a catchy/dumb name somewhere along the way, and then people start making fun of whatever gets that movement-name stamp. It happens all the time now: mumblecore, trap rave, vulgar auteurism, the golden age of television antiheroes. I’m guilty of teasing this stuff sometimes, and you probably are too. Chillwave remains the deepest and darkest example — a name that suggests both paralyzing nostalgia and paralyzing indolence. And it’s been fascinating to see what the people in the first wave of artists pegged with the name have done to distance themselves, to move on. Neon Indian has gone full-on glitch-glam. Toro Y Moi has turned toward breathy and idiosyncratic soul music. And both guys’ post-chillwave albums have been really good. Washed Out main man Ernest Greene, by contrast, doesn’t seem invested in moving on. If anything, he’s doubled down, and folded in another form of recently out-of-fashion music: The hazily tropical Balearic beach-music of continentals like El Guincho and Air France and jj and Studio. He’s moved past chillwave by making something even chiller, and so maybe he deserves respect for sticking to his sleepy, sleepy guns.
In his MySpace piece about Paracosm, my young colleague Brandon Soderberg posits the intriguing idea that this music isn’t as dopey and directionless as its detractors might suggest — that it actually shows a logical response from a generation with no real prospects and nothing to do but float along from paycheck to paycheck. I’m fascinated with that idea, and I’m not sure I agree with it, but I’m unreservedly behind Brandon on one point: This is music for relaxing, for sitting with beers and friends in back yards, and that’s a good thing. I can’t imagine it’s a coincidence that Paracosm is seeing release right when summer is at its draggy, muggy height, when some days the air feels too heavy to get out of bed. Paracosm is mood music specifically for those moments, and heard in the right light, it lazily spins and glitters in a way that fits the moment perfectly. Throw this on headphones when you’re attempting a death-trudge across a supermarket parking-lot on an oppressively hot afternoon, and you want to high-five yourself for being an amazing music supervisor on the movie about your own life — and that feeling is almost enough to carry you through the sliding doors. The problem, of course, is that when you hear the music in isolation, it stubbornly refuses to become anything more than mood music. Most of the time.
I mentioned above that Paracosm is a good album with a couple of great moments. Those great moments are the ones where the drifting stops, where everything snaps into focus. There are two of them, “All I Know” and “Falling Back.” Both are expertly executed synthpop songs. These songs that don’t skimp on the humid atmosphere of the other tracks, but they don’t use that atmosphere as a crutch, either. “All I Know” opens with a faraway keyboard drone and a tingling piano line, and then it suddenly blows open in an endorphin-rush of acoustic guitars and synthetic drums. Its lyrics are about seeing the face of the person you love and suddenly having something like a panic attack, about realizing that your feelings might be too much for you to actually contain. It kills me. “Falling Back” is different, a laid-back psychedelic sunshower like the starry-eyed tracks that the Chemical Brothers would put at the end of their albums, the ones where the block-rockin’ beat never quite dropped. But it, too, has clarity and structure underneath all the ripples and flutters. Most of Paracosm is mood music for when you’re already in a certain mental place, but these two songs are the ones that will put you in that place even if that’s not where you are — the ones that bring on the chill.
Paracosm is out now on Sub Pop.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Scott & Charlene’s Wedding’s lo-fi indie-pop ramble Any Port In A Storm.
• Bloc Party’s The Nextwave Sessions EP.