Ernest Greene’s new Washed Out album is about a breakup, which might seem strange for such an orthodox chillwave album. But when you think about it, it works. The music on Purple Noon assures us everything will be fine in the end, which is usually truer than the conceit of so many albums that the end of a relationship is an apocalyptic event. And it’s true for Greene, who’s now happily married and based these lyrics on past experiences. Listening to these songs, we somehow understand that no one’s going to get hurt too badly and that life will go on. Isn’t that reassurance why we come to music like this?
Greene’s style has become so familiar by now that it’s hard to fault him for not experimenting or changing his sound that much over four albums. The new production gloss he’s found as a Sub Pop signee is less preferable than the slightly underwater quality of his two masterful early EPs and debut Within & Without. But as long as those undulating, Sade-like harmonies still swim across his music, we’re safely in his world. You don’t have to worry about Greene dropping a cringey lyric or ruining a song with a verse from some overexcited rapper. You don’t really have to worry about anything with him.
The biggest difference between Purple Noon and past works is that it loses much of the earlier haze and leans into streamlined Balearic sounds. There aren’t many noises here that’ll make you do a double-take and play it back to make sure you just heard what you heard, no phasers or flange or anything “psychedelic” beyond his usual acres of reverb. But that reduction makes the album go down more smoothly. It’s reassuring to come back to the first track and know you’re guaranteed another 30-something minutes of this.
The only distracting moments come when Greene tries to approximate some of indie’s more irritating vocal curlicues, as on “Paralyzed”. That Greene let his vocals bleed together with the rest of the music was always key to Washed Out’s appeal, and here, he seems more like he’s trying to be a frontman. And while some songs end on a chord, a lot of songs (“Reckless Desires”, “Too Late”) stop looping at the end of a bar. That is one of the more irritating trends in electronic production over the last decade and a more damning indictment of laziness in the music industry than that people might want to listen to an album that’s basically the millennial version of smooth jazz.
The last major chillwave album before this was the very good George Clanton and Nick Hexum, which by pitting the web prankster with the frontman of 311 made the case there’s no difference between critically-beloved and critically-derided music. Likewise, Purple Noon is best enjoyed if you don’t let your preconceptions—in this case, about what it means to release a chillwave album in 2020—dominate your experience. What a shame it would be if this album were slept on because the self-satisfied snark of not listening to an album because it’s “irrelevant” won over the pleasures of sinking into this dreamscape. Give it a try! Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.
The most pervasive notion that Purple Noon rebukes, though, is that music needs to be built from pain to play a part in the world. Purple Noon is less about a breakup than about the ups and downs any human being experiences in their life. It is an album many will go back to for comfort, and maybe it’s the same quarantine crazies that had me picking up Rebelution the other night talking, but I’m grateful for anyone making music like this. Purple Noon isn’t the mindless bliss of programmed Spotify algorithm music but the comfort of hanging out with an old friend.