Review Summary: Close your eyes, you’re weightless now.
“Leave it all and start again,” sings Ernest Greene/Washed Out on “Weightless”, one of the many standouts on Paracosm
, his second album for the Sub Pop label. The sentiment Greene expresses is telling: the jury may still be out on whether chillwave actually constitutes a distinct genre, but if there ever was a record that gave form to the term’s defining characteristics, it was the American’s now-seminal debut, Within and Without
. But regardless of how you choose to read into Greene’s intentions, it’s clear that with “Weightless”, he’s made one of the year’s best and most nostalgia-inducing songs.
The number is also one of the rare moments of self-indulgence that Greene affords himself on Paracosm
, for the rest of the record actually sees him drastically altering his trademark sound by pulling in all manner of influences – including the integration of guitar and live drums – to produce a body of work that is quite unlike anything he’s ever made before. But don’t make the mistake of conflating Greene’s willingness to compromise with weakness, for the auditory reinvention presented on Paracosm
isn’t so much the American artist retreating into territory already made familiar by others of the indie rock persuasion, but rather a forceful expansion outwards; the annexation of new sounds and foreign influences in order to more clearly delineate his own borders.
The verdict of our proverbial jury notwithstanding, it’s been a pretty great year for chillwave: Toro Y Moi’s surprisingly aggressive Anything In Return
hit stores as early as mid-January, and last April Neon Indian treated us to a reinterpretation of Era Extrana
via Twin Shadow, Boyd Rice, and Actress. Not bad at all for a genre birthed almost entirely in the throes of the blogosphere and in the back of a few critics’ minds. But the novel trajectories charted by both Bundick and Palomo – who, along with Greene, arguably form the holy trifecta of chillwave – hinted at a growing sense that there needed to be more to the genre than a heavy reliance on the reconstruction of long-lost childhood memories and the romanticization of VHS mold. To wit: an album like Paracosm
could only have come out of that communal need for a response, and sympathizers of the genre will be gratified to note that the record springs forth with a powerful immediacy and the sense that it absolutely had to be made.
In fact, the first thing one notices about Paracosm
is how it sounds a good deal brighter and lusher than any of Greene’s previous work. Album opener “Entrance”, for instance, spends practically its entire length showing us how it can make puns out of its producer's last name, with wildlife samples sprinkled liberally across what sounds like a bed of xylophone and a series of gorgeously roiling synthesizers. First single “It All Feels Right”, which follows, sees Greene toying around with a joyful, almost exuberant acoustic guitar riff which winds its way around a set of drums that have been placed relatively high in the mix. But while the song has been touted in several circles as the “Great Reaction Against Chillwave”, it’s honestly hard for me to see it as anything other than a logical expansion of the sonic template introduced on numbers like Within and Without
’s “Before” or even Alan Palomo’s “Fallout”; as Greene himself prompts halfway through the song: “Think about the old times/What’s it all about"/The feeling when it all works out.”
Equally as nifty is “Don’t Give Up”, whose slow and deliberate introductory cadence belies a surprisingly high BPM and an out-and-out rock vibe; then there’s “Falling Back”, whose energetic outlook and sun-baked production cast it as perfect waterski music. "Weightless" in turn taps effortlessly into the same sense of loss carried so well by previous Washed Out cuts like “Far Away” and “You and I”, before reaching its apex with a soaring chorus that gradually disappears into a blaze of sephia-tinted grey. The title track also proves itself worthy of its resonant single-word name: “Paracosm” is a reference to the prolonged fantasy worlds that children tend to invent, and here the implication is that Greene believes he can recreate such scenes for us, to the point that we might mistake them for reality. There was never any chance of that truly happening here, but credit must still go to Greene for ensuring that the song’s sense of time and place is never once undercut by the relatively vibrant music he has chosen as his medium this time around.
Somewhat ironically given the transportative tendencies of its subject matter, it still remains to be seen whether chillwave has what it takes to stand the test of time, even more than half a decade after its initial conception. But while I have chosen to use this space to view – and laud – Paracosm
as a conscious departure from the sensual trappings of both its predecessor and its parent genre, it isn’t entirely difficult to conceive of others who might view it instead as evidence of music critics’ tendency to over-diagnose and over-prescribe genres. And I sort of get that: it’s the same reason I roll my eyes at the very mention of brostep or just-about-anything-core. But in its very best moments, Paracosm
works as a stunning reminder as to why, perhaps, some of us find chillwave to be so uniquely addictive and therefore worth segregating from other forms of music: it’s a celebration of life, and a bitter reminder that our best days may have long passed us by.