Do we treat it as a chillwave album or an album about chillwave?
Mister Mellow starts with a thick mist of phasers and a riot of sampled coughs and manic laughter. Are we supposed to think of â€śLaughing Gas,â€ť from Neon Indianâ€™s Psychic Chasms? Itâ€™s possible. And itâ€™s also possible weâ€™re meant to think of Toro Y Moiâ€™s â€śBlessaâ€ť when a sampled voice sighs, â€śI go to work, I try my bestâ€ť on â€śFloating By.â€ť This is an album that embracesâ€”or, perhaps more accurately, reckons withâ€”chillwave rather than running from it.
Ernest Greene helped define chillwave with his first two EPs, but he could never quite escape it. By 2011, the genre had hit saturation point, and peers Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi turned left into weirder territory. Greene refined his sound instead, perhaps out of stubborn commitment to his style or a disinterest in leaving his comfort zone. Paracosm, with its acoustic guitars, was marginally more serious but didnâ€™t gain him much more than a few Pandora plays.
Mister Mellow returns to the sound of his early tapes, especially High Times. There arenâ€™t too many songs proper here, mostly sample-focused doodles. Greene is 34, but this sounds more like the product of a kidâ€™s bored summer than anything heâ€™s done since his career took off. Itâ€™s better for it. It might not be as immersive as Within & Without or Paracosm, but itâ€™s more interesting, quickly introducing ideas and never lingering too long on atmosphere.
The persistent theme is boredom. Greene sighs about daydreaming and days slowly going by, his voice thick with reverb and underlaid by the occasional harmony. The sampled voices seem forlorn. â€śMy life, you know, it’s boring,â€ť says one. â€śIâ€™ve just been busy, sort of, and bummed out, sort of.â€ť Chillwave and boredom have always gone hand-in-hand, but Mister Mellow makes ennui its raison dâ€™ĂŞtre, and thereâ€™s less of the escapism on something like â€śFeel It All Around.â€ť
Perhaps his embrace of the genre he helped create is in earnest. But it seems soâ€¦ aggressive. Look at the word â€śchillwaveâ€ť scrawled on the cover, and the song titles: â€śBurn Out Blues,â€ť â€śTime Off,â€ť â€śFloating By,â€ť â€śIâ€™ve Been Daydreaming My Entire Life,â€ť â€śZonked,â€ť â€śInstant Calm,â€ť â€śMillion Miles Away.â€ť Itâ€™s being presented as a â€śvisual album,â€ť but while those tend to be ambitious signifiers of auteurism, the visual component to Mister Mellow mostly consists of footage of people smoking weed and eating burgers.
Is he joking? Itâ€™s hard to tell how Greene feels about chillwave, and itâ€™s hard for the listener to know what to feel, either. The musicâ€™s gorgeous and will work as well on a hot summer day as anything heâ€™s ever done, and on a musical level it frequently approaches the highs of his early EPs. But does Greene respect this material or mock it? Are we supposed to enjoy it or laugh at it? Do we treat it as a chillwave album or an album about chillwave? For that matter, is it a love letter or a sardonic Dear John? These questions nag at us, keeping us from zoning out like we want to.