In 2011, a Paste writer prophesied that Washed Out would “still be around when ‘chillwave’ has gone the way of ‘dance-punk.’” Nine years later, that prediction has held pretty true. Listening to chillwave in 2020 is like listening to a disco record in 1988, or a peak britpop album in 2006—the vibes still land, but you can’t escape the sense that you’re gazing upon a relic from a fossilized era. Yet Ernest Greene, a.k.a Washed Out, who helped architect the genre’s blissed out, soft-focus echo of an aesthetic with 2009’s excellent Life of Leisure EP, is still here, still making records and writing for other artists, such as Sudan Archives.
Washed Out’s last album, Mister Mellow, deviated from his trademark style: It was his first outing for Stones Throw, and it merged his textured approach with the zonked-out, stoned hip-hop aesthetic that’s core to the label’s roster. Mister Mellow wasn’t a great album, but it was a pretty good one, and it would have been interesting to see Greene veer further down the path of sample-based grooves. Instead, Washed Out’s new album, Purple Noon, feels like a retreat to chillwave essentials. From the opening sighs of “Too Late”—icy synths and Balearic-inspired drum programming that hum to life like machinery flickering on—it’s an undeniably lush set of synth-pop come-ons, yet it fails to recapture the woozy euphoria of Washed Out’s best work.
What distinguishes the record from Washed Out’s previous ones are the vocals, which are clearer and more distinct, a departure from the genre’s typical preference for fuzzy, mutated voice layering. While making the record, Greene spent time listening to ’80s hitmakers like Sade and The Cars, which perhaps inspired a brighter, more forceful approach to vocal hooks, especially apparent on “Paralyzed” and the dub-inflected “Time to Walk Away.” Listen to a track on 2011’s Within and Without and then something from Purple Noon; it’s like seeing a blurry JPEG load into focus.
Indeed, it’s never been quite as easy to understand what Greene is singing, which proves to be a mixed blessing—both because the singer’s vocal range is too limited to facilitate a full synth-pop crossover, and because the lyrics are rarely compelling enough to warrant the spotlight. Mostly, Purple Noon consists of oddly passionless expressions of romantic passion: “My heart is burning up / Can never get enough / Think I’m addicted to your love,” Greene deadpans in “Paralyzed.” It’s a solid song, but a little too bloodless and inert to live up to its steamy, sensual video, which depicts an idyllic sexual encounter between two young women.
Releasing an uncommonly horny chillwave album during a summer when nobody is horny and nothing feels chill isn’t a terrible miscalculation—everyone needs a little counterprogramming. The trouble is, most of Purple Noon is too vague and joyless to evoke those emotions when listening to it. Instead, noncommittal tracks like “Face Up” and “Reckless Desires” slosh around in mid-tempo beats and lush, sighing harmonies, conveying little more passion than a pharmaceutical commercial. “Too Late” pays homage to Phil Collins’ iconic (and weirdly timely) “In the Air Tonight” drum fill, but there’s none of the thunderbolt dynamic range that made the original drum part so invigorating.
Purple Noon is a dependably pleasant listen from beginning to end. Every trademark of Greene’s sound, from the cavernous, layered vocal harmonies to the generously blurred synth pads, is reliably accounted for. There are plenty of appealing melodic flourishes: the sitar-tinged synthesizer hook that passes for a chorus in “Hide,” the falsetto swooning in “Face Up,” the uncharacteristically direct vocal melody of “Paralyzed,” one of the few tracks that reflects the more beat-driven pedigree of Mister Mellow.
But there’s nothing here that complicates or advances Greene’s sound, nothing that particularly stands out from the agreeably monotonous haze; there are no songs that veer in unexpected directions, nothing as stirring as, say, 2011’s “You and I” or as funky as 2017’s “Floating By.” Purple Noon goes down like plaid wallpaper, something that’s nice to look at but easier to ignore.
The chillwave movement has always channeled nostalgia—warm echoes of a distant past, faded and warped into a new aesthetic. Purple Noon, though, mostly just elicits nostalgia for the glory days of chillwave itself.
Zach Schonfeld is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York. He contributes regularly to Paste, Pitchfork, VICE, and other publications. Previously, he was a senior writer for Newsweek. His first book comes out in November 2020.