Album Review: Washed Out – Notes From A Quiet Life

[Phantom Limb/Spirituals; 2024]

After an extended period of social isolation and a worldwide political disintegration that can only be described as ‘apocalyptic’, it’s no wonder that millennial nostalgia seems to have reached its apex. It’s quite obvious with the sudden appearance of album anniversary tours, but cultural amalgamations like I Saw The TV Glow spell out the same longing to revisit a Clinton-era childhood and post-9/11 eccentricity infused young adulthood.

But as always with nostalgia, the desire to reconnect with a lost era ignores the contradictions that spawned those times. Bloc Party aren’t quite what they once were  anymore, and I Saw The TV Glow didn’t find much substance or character outside of recovering – and serenading – the aura of 90s teen-cultural artefacts.

Maybe that’s why vaporwave and It Follows succeeded where so much of the current attempts at cultural resuscitation failed: those examples imagined loose reinterpretations of the past marked by purgatorial absence. Vaporwave records imagine stories but don’t provide images or text, It Follows in turn projects a constant absence of stability in the safe-space of suburban mythology. The current spirit of millennial nostalgia is, in essence, devoid of actual subversion.

And somehow, that makes Washed Out more relevant than ever. A curiosity during the late 2000s, Ernest Greene’s project imagined The Beach Boys if they had released Pet Sounds on an 80s VHS-tape, all garbled synths, muffled vocals and afternoon beach sunsets. One EP and two LPs saw Ernest Green dominate the Carles-coined ‘chillwave’ genre, before the lights dimmed around the strange, hypnagogic style.

It’s easy to see why: the albums collected under the moniker were as sunny and hallucinatory as they were melancholic and riddled with doubt. They might have soundtracked some childhoods, but likewise were observations of inexistent adolescent memories whose lack would frame the hangover of the uneven 2010s: if the world starts burning and the money runs out, you start to mourn to never have had an upbringing as  colourful as a Gregg Araki movie.

Ironically, the music that Washed Out had intended as comforting and warm now felt like a lie to its initial audience – there were no beaches or sunsets left. The fact that quasi-mini-album Mister Mellow felt all too brief and 2020’s Purple Noon all too transparent didn’t help matters. Still, with George Clanton embracing (and expanding) what chillwave means and aforementioned nostalgia in full bloom, it does seem like the return of Greene could actually, finally, push Washed Out back into the spotlight.

Notes from a Quiet Life sounds like a belated letter from the lockdown days, yet its corp is much more groovy and jaunty than that of Purple Noon. Where that album was busy confronting the tectonic shift of the 80s into the 90s, Notes from a Quiet Life is more content exploring the synth-laden children of Life of Leisure, such as Windows 96FM Skyline or Satin Sheets.

Spacious and echoing, “Got Your Back” feels like a more confident expansion of Beck’s stoner tone into the TiKTok age. Lead single “The Hardest Part”, whose AI-composed music video got undeserved shit online, is a genuinely uplifting twist on the Italo disco of  Ryan Paris’ “Dolce Vita”. Given that it expands on a sound that was already an artificial recycling of something foreign (Italo disco was, after all, used as another argument in the rockist war against synthesizers), the video’s dreamlike landscapes of constant flow through time actually resonate beautifully and elevate the song thematically.

The RnB infused “Second Sight” is equally hypnagogic, and a refreshingly sexy entry into Greene’s lush catalogue. “Wait On You” continues the approach into modernist Black music, albeit with a more laid back vocal melody and vocal samples – it ends up a little underwritten, but gorgeous nonetheless. The dynamic glow of “Wondrous Life” is more unique, a distant cousin of Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur” minus the anxiety, and a definitive cut off the album.

For the most part, Notes from a Quiet Life is concerned with providing a new edge to Greene’s compositions, using lush synth tones and distant instrumentation to contrast its milky vocal melodies. “A Sign” is a great example of this, with its sharp synth flute cutting through the calm guitar and beats. Opener “Waking Up” is equally cool and memorable, hinting at the halcyon glow of Boards of Canada’s Music has the Right to Children.

Where Paracosm was consciously tropical psychedelia and Within and Without imagined club melancholia, Washed Out’s latest seems more stable, mellow. It doesn’t soundtrack shopping malls so much as it is a mature memory. When I spoke of the sadness connected to inexistent memories – the bitter feeling of missing out on a bright youth – then Greene is now reaching for a fantasia that is deeply rooted within contemporary understanding of nostalgia. You won’t find VHS tapes soundtracked by anything similar to Windows 96 or  Palmbomen 2, but these works manifest how we think we remember this past. Greene, in turn, uses these tones and atmospheres, but frames them in a much more contemporary understanding of these genres and musical tropes.

In a way, that results in music that is a little more stoned – stiff, dare I say – than the free flowing early trinity of Washed Out releases. Yet it’s impossible to relive Life of Leisure in a current context – things have simply moved too much into focus to stay as blurry as they were 15 years ago. Ironically, a new generation now sees that EP through the same lens of analogue nostalgia that it was initially meant to reproduce – only that instead of VHS tapes, the kids now see CDs as obsolete medium.

In short: it’s hard to say how Notes from a Quiet Life will sound to Zoomers, or Gen Alpha. To this ageing Xennial, it seems quietly confident, purposefully bittersweet and refreshing in its sparkling surface. Dare I compare it to a yuzu lemonade? Possibly too obscure (and icy), so I leave it at this warm recommendation: Washed Out’s fifth album is a genuinely engrossing return to form, filled with memorable songs and flawless craftsmanship. A soundtrack for growing out of the past, and into the future.