Ernest Greene is a visual thinker. He's been making music under the Washed Out moniker since 2009, and his projects have always had strong visual elements. So it follows that Mister Mellow—the followup to 2013's Paracosm—is a visual album; and in many ways, it's very much the logical next step for the 34-year-old artist. For Greene, it's also the natural outgrowth of his interests at the time.
"I was working on these songs that I didn't consider as Washed Out songs—just stuff I was doing for fun while traveling or something" he told me. "After a few failed attempts, I realized that they had a charm to them because they I wasn't really stressing over them too hard. That ended up kind of being the [album's] direction—just letting things happen very casually and embracing the sloppiness of everything."
"Visual album" is somewhat of a buzzword these days, and lots of artists are making them: Beyonce's Lemonade is one obvious example of this, and Frank Ocean's Endless is notable too . With artists like Toro y Moi jumping in the fray recently, it feel like a very on-trend move. But for Greene—a self-described perfectionist—the visual element came naturally.
"At the time, I was really getting into a lot of visual art and weird animation stuff that embraced a human quality of having things overlap in a collage-type way that felt really similar to the music," Greene explains on his "Ah-ha! Moment" regarding Mister Mellow's creation. "Initially it was just gonna be a few videos, and then it quickly became much bigger because all of the songs conceptually made sense. For me, it was the ultimate kind of fantasy project."
The album saw digital release in June with the vinyl dropping last Friday; at a half-hour's run time, it's brief, but there's a fullness of heart, sound, and emotion. Mister Mellow loses the big backing band sound of the Paracosm, but the vibe is similar to the previous work from the chillwave artist. It's got the same wide open synths that make you feel like you're walking on air, layered in with vintage, psychedelic sounds. The psychedelic element is something he really drives home with the visuals, which include yellow smiley face balloons, trippy patterns, a glum Big Bird, and bright wiggly colors that dance and slide and spin into one another. It's all very deliberate, if a little on-the-nose. But it serves a purpose. Greene has previously said he makes albums around feelings, and you can't turn on Mister Mellow without feeling something—especially nostalgia.
"I can't shake nostalgia," he admits. "I don't know if that's just part of getting older, but it falls into the big theme of struggling with the new role of 'being an adult,' where it's not all fun and games. The worst part about it is I've lived a pretty charmed life—I'm doing what I love to do, and yet I'm still falling into the trap of the same thing every day. I feel super guilty about that a lot of the time, I can't help it. For me, music is such an escape, and often times it's very much bringing back memories from the past. I find a lot of beauty and comfort in that."
That feeling of nostalgia applies particularly to Mister Mellow's "I've Been Daydreaming All My Life," (below) the video of which was directed by Greene and features almost 500 photos from his life. "I grew up in a really small town in Georgia, and I always felt like the odd man out —I just never really fit in," he says. "I was sort of a loner, which obviously led to me being so into music. [The song] is very much autobiographical, and so is the entire record."
And Greene says writing about personal subjects is what comes natural to him. "I envy a lot of songwriters who can step outside themselves and write from other people's perspectives—I have a hard time with that. Most often, the kind of stuff that I'm dealing with just seeps into the material, even if it starts at a subconscious level."
There is no linear narrative to Mister Mellow, but it's reflective of what was going on in Greene's life at the time. The Georgia native recently became a father and has spent the last year reckoning with new responsibility, looking back on the life that's already passed now that he finds himself in his mid-thirties.
"That's like one of those moments where it immediately puts you in check—What am I doing with my life? What am I going to be doing for the next thirty years? I was super weirded out by that, and it certainly influenced the music. I was able to take a step back and realize that all of my friends are going through the very same thing, and it's very much of a shared experience. But at the same time, it's that much harder in the modern day, not even talking about what's happening politically."
But it's impossible to compartmentalize the personal from what's going on in the wider world, and how technology affects our lives. For Greene, it was thinking about how we're inundated with information and content all the time. "The hardest thing for me with my son was being able to balance time, work, and family. The world we live in these days, with cell phones and the internet, social media...I'm already stressed out because I don't have time, but every spare moment I have, I'm looking at either the news or a screen. It was so exhausting. That song [Zonked] in particular is very much about that feeling of sensory overload. The video is a pretty incredible representation of that, because it's just so many layers happening, at one time, and like, your brain just can't even begin to take it all in."
"On some level, that's kinda how I wanted the whole record to work. It's seamless, there's no breaks ever. It's just a lot coming at you all the time."
Leslie Horn is Noisey's Managing Editor.