I’m trying to figure out what Ernest Greene’s secret is. The man who does musical business as Washed Out—and let’s remember that he is credited with more or less inventing chillwave—offers up what appears on the surface to be standard-issue 21st-century electronic pop: beat-heavy, bass-forward, easy-on-the-ears, all sounds seemingly emerging from digital sources. Why is this song so good and so many similar efforts so forgettable?
I have a few ideas. First of all, never underestimate the power of a good voice. I am continually surprised by how many submissions I get that discourage me as soon as the singing starts. Not everyone who tries to sing is a good singer; not all voices are created equal. Greene’s voice has a tone at once rich and hazy, and whatever manipulative effects are employed, a listener never loses track of the appealing human voice producing the sounds. (Boy do I wish that anyone still tempted by Auto-Tune would discover the potential of other ways to deal with voice in the digital realm. Greene should teach a master class.)
Digging deeper, there is something too in the actual notes he sings. I don’t have perfect pitch and my knowledge of music theory is incomplete at best but I do think that Greene has the happy inclination to sing what may be suspended notes, or in any case are notes appealingly off the underlying chord. You hear this as soon as he opens his mouth (0:40), singing “I saw you there”: there, that’s the note I’m talking about. It’s not in the chord backing the melody here. He doesn’t in fact meet up with the chord until the end of the next phrase (“waiting outside“); how warm and cozy that feels is a side effect of how much he has otherwise been hanging the melody in suspension. He draws some extra attention to this inclination when he gets to the word “shy” at 1:03. The subtle tension created by these notes is seductive.
Another thing going on here to the song’s benefit is the dynamic range of the percussion. I don’t know if any of this comes from a three-dimensional drum kit or not but the effect is three-dimensional because Greene offers up shifts in volume in the elements of the beat. A lot of electronic beats, however seemingly intricate, are flatter in this regard. You can hear a purposefully dramatic incidence of this in the intro, at 0:15. But all through the verse section, what you actually have, underneath the blurry trappings, is an old-fashioned backbeat (emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the measure), effected via the dynamic range. It’s not that this is impossible or even difficult to do electronically; it may just be that music makers right now don’t really care to do it.
Lastly, Greene is comfortable getting a little odd. And a bit of oddness can be extremely welcome, especially in a musical era marked by click-oriented efforts to be “catchy.” Here we get a distinctly odd chorus (1:20): the beat disappears; the vocals layer into a vibey mist; the lyrics are punctuated by what sound like distorted, synthesized cellos; and for good measure we get some digitized hand claps before it’s done.