Washed Out breaks the wave
Mister Mellow' strikes back with a work of dazzling impressionism
Ernest Greene is in the midst of promoting Washed Out's latest record, Mister Mellow, in Los Angeles, where his new label Stones Throw is debuting the album-long visual accompaniment, the Mister Mellow Show. Los Angeles is the perfect setting for Greene to unveil his latest project to the world, as the glitzy city befits the album's lofty ambitions and subject matter. The album's title, Mister Mellow, is a misnomer as well as a play on Greene's reputation and sound, as the record finds Greene wrestling with parenthood, the malaise of happiness and the emotional disconnect that comes from constantly being connected to the digital world. The project stands as a testament to how far Greene has come personally and professionally; he teamed with tech giant Microsoft to create impressionistic visuals for the live show in real time and is light years from the kid fresh out of UGA making music in his humid bedroom in the rural outskirts of Macon, Georgia.
Although Washed Out is often pigeonholed as a scion of the chillwave scene, each record has evolved as much as Greene. The bedroom haze of a few cassettes released circa 2009 lit up the blogosphere, culminating in 2011 with Washed Out's Sub Pop debut, Within and Without. But Greene traded in the murky sensuality of those records for the live instrumentation and sunshine psychedelia heard on his second album, 2013's Paracosm. The evolution continues with Mister Mellow, which feels like a reaction to Paracosm with its dark lyrics and beat-driven sound collages.
"I was in a weird place, struggling a lot emotionally," Greene says candidly while recalling the headspace he was in while working on the multimedia endeavor. "Having a son is obviously a big moment that puts you in check. I started thinking about what I had done with my life and what I wanted to do just a lot of heavier stuff falls on your shoulders. A lot of the record starts purely from my own perspective, but I quickly realized how much of a shared experience that it is settling into your role as an adult."
The resulting sound is unmistakably Washed Out fuzzy and warm around the edges but a version that's less in tune with the inherent vibes of his 2009 single "Feel It All Around," which garnered the world's attention. Instead, Greene is more concerned with the larger questions plaguing existence. It's a portrait of an artist growing up. Songs such as "Get Lost" and "Hard to Say Goodbye" have the feel of a manic, anxiety-ridden, kaleidoscopic trip around a psychedelic roller rink. It's a party, sure, but there's a nervous darkness at the edge of each smile and fuzzy vibe.
Given the album's many drug references and promo materials that say "take a hit and get lost," it's easy for Mister Mellow to be seen as a drug record. But Greene says it's bigger than that and that the "getting lost" part isn't an invitation to party. "The drug references are not meant to glorify drug-taking. It's actually the opposite of that. That's just one crutch I see so many leaning on so heavily, myself and my friends at times included, but it's so many different things. Alcohol, pharmaceuticals, food, exercise, social media, sex ... and I don't think that part is such a modern dilemma. It's just a part of dealing with adult life, which can be both a challenge and quite boring," he adds. "That's another thing I wanted to poke fun at: having all this information available all the time, but the flipside is being completely bored by the same day-to-day as an adult. It's both extremes."
Greene ponders the consequences of having infinite opportunities to escape via phones, computers and social media affecting an entire generation, and if the distraction of building digital monuments to one's self via Facebook allows for things like Donald Trump's rise. Greene pauses thoughtfully before adding, "For me, this record was about working through that in a lot of ways. The power of unplugging and putting the devices aside. You rarely have a moment, and when you do, you're pulling out your phone so you can frantically check the news. It feels like such a modern dilemma; there's just so much information available. I could never turn my brain off. We're just constantly craving that."
And Trump? "Well, I kinda agree with what Father John Misty said in his New Yorker profile," he says, "that we all kind of secretly wanted Trump to win solely for the sort of entertainment value. On some level, it's like we're craving that drama."
Sharing those all important opinions on the matter with the digital universe, even if it's just to unleash moral indignation? "Exactly. It's a strange sensation. Every morning I have my apps for the biggest news stories and it's like 'OK, what terrible thing happened overnight?' Naturally, that's going to seep into the music."
As such, Mister Mellow conjures a mix of existential boredom and vapid escapism that's on par with Bret Easton Ellis' 1985 novel Less Than Zero. He laughs at the comparison and sees the parallels. "We're all acting like those characters right now," he says. "I'm in a weird place because of my age, I straddle the line between Gen X and Millennials. Even with promotion, I wanna do right by promoting the album, but I feel weird doing a lot of this stuff."
The Mister Mellow Show is Greene's first pairing with the Microsoft-backed visuals. It's also his first tour without his wife Blair on board something Mister Mellow himself is clearly bummed about. "She's been there from the start in one way or another," says Greene. "It's really strange doing this stuff without her. To be honest, it really sucks. Being on tour is a lot like being in Groundhog's Day because it's so monotonous, but the flipside of that is we can schedule Facetime and stuff like that."