Washed Out, Khruangbin, and the End of Chillwave

Washed Out, Khruangbin, and the End of Chillwave
Washed Out photo by Blair Greene

There’s a beautiful sunset on the horizon, but it’s not real. It’s a backdrop offering a faux-natural contrast to the purely technological glow of a sample pad under the chin of Ernest Greene, the 37-year-old musician behind the Washed Out project. His head bobs as he triggers a series of samples to build the framework of his latest single “Too Late,” switching between two microphones as he vocally keens into the void. The fake sunset persists behind him, largely unchanging as a body of water calmly rustles at its base.

That’s the gist of Greene’s performance for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert last week, his soothing atmosphere specifically constructed for the late-night show’s “#PlayAtHome” series. The performance of “Too Late”—the first single from Washed Out’s fourth album Purple Noon, which is out this Friday on Sub Pop—stands in obvious contrast to late-night performances of years past; with no studio audience or real stage to speak of, there’s the once-uncharacteristic intimacy that we’re all still getting used to when it comes to remotely-filmed live performances in the age of COVID-19. The soft glow from Greene’s electronics is almost tactile, like an iTunes visualizer or a digital pond to run your fingers along its surface.

Otherwise, the song more or less remains the same. More than a decade into his career, Greene is still mining the same lush electronic pop soundscapes that he became instantly indie-famous for when his 2009 single “Feel It All Around” became one of the last organically viral works of music in the increasingly corporatized sphere of indie. Hipster Runoff—the now-defunct, often-satirical, and frequently misogynistic blog run by the mononymous provocateur Carles—tagged the hazy, vibe-consumed strain of electronic pop that “Feel It All Around” eventually inspired as “chillwave,” a tag that fellow practitioners like Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi hastily sought to escape; meanwhile, eight years after “Feel It All Around,” the cover of Washed Out’s third album Mister Mellow featured Sesame Street’s Big Bird wearing an airbrushed ball cap with the word emblazoned across it.

After two albums for Sub Pop, Mister Mellow reflected a slight stylistic change-up for Greene. The album was released on Stones Throw—the hallowed California hip-hop label which also put out J Dilla’s final album and chillwave touchstone Donuts in 2006—and Mister Mellow accordingly reflected a giggly, stoner-friendly variant of Greene’s dreamy touchscreen music. But Purple Noon confirms that this slight alteration to Washed Out’s carefully tailored music was not meant to last; if anything, Greene has pushed his sound further into chillwave’s oft-derided territory than ever before. The synths stretch for miles, his honeyed moan drizzles over every song like the countless early-2010s covers of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” (including his own), the rhythmic backbones sound like countless variations on the deathless drum fill that opens Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”

There’s nothing inherently remarkable about Purple Noon, or in the fact that Greene’s musical perspective remains frozen in amber. It’s a perfectly fine album that, like so much chillwave as well as the bevy of mood-setting music that's followed in the micro-movement’s wake, is meant to fade into the background. If it came out a year or two ago, I’m not sure there would be any reason to talk about it at all.

But as we’ve witnessed over the past six months—from Ellen DeGeneres’ astounding and much-deserved fall in public opinion to viral-for-all-the-wrong-reasons celebrity PSA videos—the age of COVID-19 has proven the great equalizer in exposing the ineffectualness of so many facets of popular culture. The imminent arrival of Purple Noon means that it’s time for chillwave’s turn under the magnifying glass, which might seem unfair to Greene himself. The latest Washed Out album was assuredly in the works well before the beginning of the pandemic, and its genesis surely predates mass culture’s recent admission that structural inequality indeed exists the world over.

But if the purposeful escapism of Purple Noon—an album named after René Clément’s 1960 The Talented Mr. Ripley adaptation that, according to bio materials, takes inspiration from “the coastlines of the Mediterranean”—would have once come across as self-parodic, it now resembles a perspective that’s hopelessly out of time and out of touch. “I think I’ve always used music as an escape but I’ve never done it as consciously as I have the last few months,” Greene told Teeth at the end of June after citing “the power of online engagement and free-flowing collaboration” as “a potential upside to the post-COVID-19 landscape”—an imagined present state, for sure, as well as a generous way to describe a time in which thousands are dying every day.

To be clear, chillwave was never explicitly political—but it was absolutely borne out of the socio-economic repercussions that many millennials faced following the recession that closed out the 2000s. Job prospects immediately disappeared for so many just-out-of-college-aged young people, many of which (including Greene himself) moved back to their parents’ homes in hopes of shoring up economic prospects at a time in which they barely existed. Isolation and idleness can sometimes breed creativity, and the relative explosion of chillwave post-“Feel It All Around” was reflective of the creative resourcefulness possessed by a generation growing up online with myriad tools at their disposal to achieve low-level fame without leaving the bedroom.

Careerism was undoubtedly at the heart of the work released by the legions of chillwavers that emerged, let’s say, from the summer of 2010 to the end of 2011. Compare its buzzy growth to the post-punk revivalist movement of the early 2000s, in which the vacuous and pop-focused distillations offered by bands like Interpol resulted in years of indie-major acts further watering down the approach with varying degrees of success. Chillwave’s lifespan burned shorter but brighter, a practical flood of on-the-cheap electronic pop made in-the-moment as a response not to social concerns, but market demand.

Chillwave essentially had nothing to say—a quality that didn’t necessarily apply to every artist tagged with the term. (That said, there is a reason why Toro Y Moi’s oft-quoted “Blessa” lyric—“I found a job/I do it fine/Not what I want/But I still try”—is constantly trotted out in pieces like the one you’re reading right now: No one at the time was singing about anything even remotely relevant in comparison.) If anything, some of chillwave’s biggest faces have studiously avoided the sub-genre’s pitfalls since: Toro’s Chaz Bundick spent the 2010s continuing to slyly chronicle the millennial condition while pogoing from genre to genre, while Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo has since taken on the sonic-fabulist guise of stylistic predecessors like Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside while tackling issues of cultural identity in the Trump era.

Greene, by comparison, is still holding on to chillwave’s original sonic and thematic intent—a warm retreat to the womb, accompanied by sounds and styles that resemble the music of the past filtered through a futuristically decayed lens. His continued approach signifies the relative uselessness of chillwave in 2020, but it also makes his art stand out by design as much of indie has moved on from the sound entirely. (His closest present-day analogue is Aaron Maine’s Porches project, once a straightahead emo-leaning rock concern that has since dove headlong into wavering synths and gently splashing drum patterns.)

There’s not much that sounds like chillwave’s original recipe these days, but chillwave nevertheless persisted through the blood of 2010s popular culture—the endless reboots, sequels, and re-imaginings that come out of Hollywood and prey on the supposed better-times nostalgia that chillwave evokes, the murky and hermetic variants of electronic pop made by superstars like Post Malone and Halsey, indie’s mid-2010s transition from guitar-based sounds to music that requires several laptops on stage, the proliferation and popularity of “lo-fi beats to study/relax to” YouTubes.

Pre-pandemic, the latest evocation of chillwave’s ethically vacant ethos came in the form of Khruangbin, the Houston trio that achieved a steadily growing level of popularity over the last several years. With elliptical grooves and a genre-fluid approach spanning the ocean-breeze sounds of Balearic (itself an early chillwave touchstone), the light squishiness of certain funk strains, and the spaciousness of dub reggae, Khruangbin’s music is soothing and meditative by design, with a live-instrumentation approach that’s friendly to the “real music” crowd. (It’s no surprise that they released an EP earlier this year with Leon Bridges, another Texas-hailing musician who’s made great hay off of chillwave’s looking-back perspective, specifically through the application of classic-era R&B.)

Another big-deal artist who’s recently and often tagged to chillwave is Kevin Parker’s Tame Impala project—but even as his latest album The Slow Rush dove deeper into synth spirals than ever before, there remains a sense of anxiety and emotional uncertainty at the center of his music that gestures towards a personality behind the vibes. Khruangbin’s music is certainly adept, and more often than not faintly enjoyable—but by comparison, it’s also clean, perfect, and edgeless, with little in the way of terms of friction.

More than one person has cited jam band culture in conversation with me when discussing the band’s increasing appeal, but Khruangbin rarely reflect the woolliness that so much jam band music possesses, instead resembling a perfectly-drawn squiggle charted out on grid paper. The trio’s second album Mordechai is perfect evidence of this approach, as they gently shift from style to style in a way befitting the type of tasteful mix you’d hear in a coffee shop, or at H&M. Were there a festival season in 2020 (or, possibly, ever again), Khruangbin would dominate every early-evening slot they could nab.

Therein lies the issue that Khruangbin and so many (both incidental and intentional) purveyors of the lifestyle music engendered by chillwave’s brief early-2010s flash face: there are no more coffee shops to waste the day away in. There are no more clothing stores to peruse. There are no more bookstores to spend an afternoon perusing the stacks of. There’s no more live music that can’t be experienced through a computer screen. There is a need for mental retreat in terms of the horrors of the outside world, but nowhere to retreat to except the banal comfort of our own homes. What happens to lifestyle music when there’s no real lifestyle to live? Why even bother pursuing good vibes if they’ve ceased to exist? Were they ever really there to begin with?

Subscribe to Last Donut of the Night

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson