Review: Paracosm, Washed Out

It can’t be easy to be universally deemed the frontrunner of a genre, be it music, film, literature, or what have you. Expectations from surveyors are nothing short of colossal when you’ve supposedly spearheaded a newfangled model of sound, and to complain of being pigeonholed is an understatement: it’s more like you’re a sparrow doomed to sing the same tune every day for the rest of your life or risk losing your avian audience eternally.

The songbird in question here is Georgia native Ernest Greene, who records and performs as Washed Out. With the release of the relentlessly blogged-about “Feel It All Around” and the subsequent Life of Leisure EP in September of 2009, Greene became the face and (reverberated) voice of Chillwave by blending atmospheric and dazed vocals, lo-fi synth pulses, and hip-hop beats on Nyquil. Greene is now nearly four years and one album (2011’s often stagnant but occasionally transcendent Within and Without) removed from his breakthrough EP (which to date still holds up admirably), and has found himself at a crossroads of sorts: chug along with the genre he championed at the expense of further sonic exploration, or try something new at the expense of his fan base.

But upon listening to the music on sophomore album Paracosm, it seems as if the pressure has not gotten to Greene. The nine-track (more like eight-and-a-half with sleepy opener “Entrance”) album is a light, easygoing affair, but with stronger backbone than his previous full-length thanks to some sturdier instrumentation. Perhaps the most marked derivation is the increased discernibility of Greene’s lyrics. With this revelation, one discovers that the songs’ lyrical themes mirror the accompanying music: there is decided focus on sensory elements (seeing, hearing, and of course, “feeling it all”) and escape, both emotional (“Weightless”) and physical (“Great Escape”, “Paracosm”, and “All Over Now”). Greene has always dared listeners to lose themselves in his music, and given the ethereal qualities of the synths, bass lines, piano, and vocals here, it’s no challenge to do so.

Greene hasn’t completely cast off his roots, but much of Paracosm is as much lounge music as it is chillwave. Buzzy lead single “It All Feels Right” is Greene’s most extroverted track to date, and would fit right in on this year’s psychedelic sophomore effort from Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers (another artist who wisely chose to expand his sound rather than rehash an acclaimed debut). Energetic tracks like “All I Know” and the title track work best as the soundtrack to a proactive summer afternoon on the sand rather than Life of Leisure’s intoxicated evening (or perhaps early morning?) skinny-dip cover photo. “Don’t Give Up” is a trip-hoppy standout, and “Falling Back” features some (very un-chillwave) hand clapping that helps keep the album firmly rooted on Planet Earth. Much of Paracosm is a welcome departure from Greene’s last release, and while nothing here reaches the pinnacles of “Feel It All Around” or “New Theory”, it’s a fine effort from a still-relevant pioneer who refuses to stand still.