I was a big fan of Within and Without, Washed Out’s debut album, when it came out in 2011. Fresh out of university and embarking on my teacher training, I remember finding it a sophisticated, beguiling listen. It seemed to chime with the adult I thought I was in the process of becoming. In advance of reviewing Purple Noon, and having not heard a Washed Out record since, I returned to it for a repeat listen. Maybe time and nostalgia had coloured how I remembered the album, but I found it to be a pleasant synth-pop album, nothing more, nothing less. To tell the truth, it was a bit… underwhelming.
Underwhelming is, sadly, the adjective that sums up my feelings about Purple Noon, the album I’m actually reviewing today. You can perhaps add ‘frustrating’ to the pot as well. There are flashes of brilliance to it, hints of the record it might have been in different hands. But overall, it’s an underwhelming listen that doesn’t linger long in the memory after you hear it.
Much was made of the lack of originality of chillwave when the genre first broke, and those criticisms apply here. It draws heavily on the 80s, particular that decade’s synth pop and dream pop. ‘Face Up’ sounds so much like a lost Phil Collins track it could be done under copyright law, ‘Hide’ plays like a slowed down New Order tune, and virtually every song on the album has you wracking your brains, trying to work out which song it reminds you of.
That Greene almost gets away with this magpie approach is testament to the skill with which the music is rendered. The production is exquisite throughout, and there are some great little flourishes that make you sit up in appreciation. On ‘Don’t Go’, the music sounds like it’s coming from under water, all muted, distorted tones, before a crystalline synth line rides in on top of the mix. I also loved the way the heavy drum sound on ‘Too Late’ drops out on the chorus to be replaced by finger-clicking, almost the inverse of the rising vocals.
Ultimately, though, there is a restraint to the music that leaves it feeling a bit hollow and cold. The best electronic music overcomes the limits of its machine origins to become something alive and human. You only have to listen to Kraftwerk to hear that in action. But despite the softness of the synth tones and production here, Purple Noon is all distance and hard edges. It’s beautifully rendered, but it resists connection and engagement. It’s lift music made by someone with a good record collection. You can imagine it playing in an exclusive Maldives resort or a sports car dealership.
A major cause of this is Greene’s voice. His delivery is flat – neither engaging nor purposefully restrained. As I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder what the songs would have sounded like with someone else singing. Maybe with someone more dynamic on vocal duties, the restraint of the music would have been thrown into contrast and become more affecting. As it is, the vocals just disappear into the mix too often. The lyrics don’t help. Most of the songs are half-written runs through the usual tropes about ended relationships and painful love, full of cliched images of stormy weather and the like. Even then, he never sounds like he means what he’s saying. When he sings about being “crazy” and “addicted” on ‘Paralyzed’, he sounds anything but. It’s all just a bit half-hearted, not captivating enough to grab the listener.
That’s the major issue with the record as a whole: it doesn’t demand your attention. Instead, it drifts too easily into the background. It’s not an awful record by any means – it didn’t have me regretting the time I spent listening to it. But I won’t be rushing to press play on it again, and I doubt I’ll remember it in a few months’ time.
Words by Will Collins