When used to describe music, especially music that I love, few adjectives make me bristle quite like “chill”. The word has a way of reducing or even ignoring the entire emotional world of a song, flattening it out to conform to a value system of narrow, restricted expressiveness. In this sense, “chill” is also something of a hypermasculine ideal, the mirror image of macho aggression. Great music can be subdued, reserved, calm, even easygoing or laidback — but never chill.
If Ernest Greene, a.k.a. Washed Out, shares even a fraction of this sentiment, the “chillwave” label that has often been applied to his music since his earliest EPs is likely anathema to him by now. If at first glance the title of his third album, Mister Mellow, seems to suggest an embrace of his image as a purveyor of gauzy good vibes, a cursory spin of the album’s lead single, “Get Lost”, immediately paints a more complicated picture. The song is driven by jarring stabs of piano that lend it an anxious, neurotic profile, even as Greene’s narcotic vocals float hazily over the surface. While easily the tensest number here, the whole album subsists on a certain nervousness, with “Get Lost” providing the clearest indication that Washed Out is doing something slightly different this time around.
The title of Mister Mellow seems to be ironic, then, perhaps serving as an allusion to Washed Out’s stereotyped image in years past rather than a statement of Greene’s present intent. Traces of his expansive, euphoric pop sensibility certainly persist here, particularly on “Million Miles Away” and “Hard to Say Goodbye”, which infuse their hooks with stray snatches of plunderphonics. Swaths of peripheral ambience give both tracks a distant, removed quality, like the catchiest pop songs that might play through your phone’s grainy speakers while you’re waiting on hold.
Most of the album, though, is artier and moodier than his previous works, from the percolating unease of “Burn Out Blues” to “Get Lost”. At a mere 30 minutes, Mister Mellow is also a notably brief work and feels all the more so for having only five tracks that exceed the three-minute mark. In this sense, it is an album of interludes and abstract experimentations as much as it is a pop record. Some of the most interesting moments occur on the shortest tracks, however: “I’ve Been Daydreaming My Entire Life” incorporates a hip-hop beat into its wandering etchings, while “Down and Out” and “Instant Life” darken the mood somewhat with dense sonic textures and found monologues.
That Mister Mellow comes accompanied by a visual album is no surprise, as these tracks contain many non-traditional sounds that seem to require a visual corollary for their full effect to be realized. Even if this limits the scope of what it can do strictly as an album, it is exciting to hear Washed Out push against the boundaries of what his work can be. No one moment stands out as being particularly great or memorable, but taken as a whole, the project is at the very least intriguing. It is an ambitious, cerebral, and unexpectedly high-strung record that helps assert Greene’s independence from his artistic beginnings, and from the restrictive tyranny of “chill”.