“It was very much a reaction against Southern music,” Washed Out’s Ernest Greene told Pitchfork last week, speaking of his early music. “I grew up in Macon, Georgia, where the Allman Brothers came from, and I was always the kid rebelling against [them].” Just past his 30th birthday, Greene is no longer a kid, and you get the sense he’s no longer so concerned with pushing back against summery, Southern-tinged embellishments. They’re all over his sophomore effort, Paracosm.
Whether or not you got behind 2011′s Within and Without (our own Chris Coplan did not), you have to feel for Greene’s dilemma in 2013. Try to replicate that album’s success with another blissed-out synth-pop set and he risks being labeled a relic of 2011′s chillwave boom, just as Liars might have been (erroneously) dismissed as dance-punk has-beens in 2004. Lurch in a different direction entirely and he just seems reactionary — trying to escape the shadows of a micro-genre as fleeting as it is musically limited. Paracosm, to its, credit, deftly navigates between the two extremes. At its best, Greene breaks open the yawning synths to make room for labored bursts of live instrumentation and unabashedly sunny flair — but its weaker moments still resemble second-rate Within and Without outtakes.
The title stems from a “phenomenon in which people create detailed imaginary worlds”; taking that concept rather literally, the album’s introduction, “Entrance”, ushers us into a tapestry of xylophones, trembling synths, and — yes — fluttering bird effects. It’s a brazen symbol of Greene’s attempts to push beyond laptop-pop, but I’ll take it. It’s soon enough displaced by dreamlike harp arpeggios and a sputtering transition into first single “It All Feels Right”, a bold and confident indicator of what Greene is aiming for here. A descending string loop leads the way as live drums and acoustic strums fill out the outer reaches of Greene’s “imaginary world.” Set to a sunburst melody, Greene’s feel-good lyrics are unabashedly sincere: “Meet up with the old crowd /Music’s playing so loud/ It all feels riii-iiight.” Cheesy, sure — but refreshing enough given the neck-deep irony that manufactures terms like “chillwave” in the first place. Propelled by a dusty bass loop and earwormy synth refrain, “Great Escape” replicates the song’s success, boasting an even dreamier vocal melody and and more baroque arrangement.
Much has been made of Paracosm‘s production process: Greene ditched Atlanta for a country house by Athens (though the album was recorded back in Atlanta) and filled his sonic palette with “over 50 different instruments,” including “old keyboards like the Mellotron, Chamberlin, Novatron, and Optigan.” You can hear the results in “All I Know”‘s sighing bridge — syrupy piano and yawning strings fill in the empty spaces — or “Falling Back”‘s arpeggiated daisy-smooth intro. Then there are the six-and-a-half minutes of the title track, alternately dreamy and aimless, rich with harp rolls and the slightest hint of twang. But the sonic flair complements — and quite never replaces — the faded synth-and-drum-machine grooves Greene is known for. Paracosm‘s lesser tracks hence resemble Within and Without leftovers, gussied up with sunnier hooks or cloying sound effects, like the gratuitous bird samples that reemerge in “Falling Back” or the Casio-tinged keyboards that drift in and out of “Weightless”.
Paracosm, then, is forthright in its intent, but to mixed success. Greene says it’s less nocturnal than his debut — “very much a daytime-sounding album” — and while I miss moodier ruminations like “You and I” and “Within and Without”, his aim works on pop compositions as ambitious as “It All Feels Right” and “Great Escape.” Elsewhere, he mistakes AOR-ready sentimentality and banal lyrics for perfect summer-album material, which seems like a misdirected pursuit — Within and Without already was a near-perfect summer album.
Essential Tracks: “It All Feels Right”, “Great Escape”, and “Don’t Give Up”