Is it harder to overcome a ubiquitous, beloved song or a critically acclaimed debut? Ask the hundreds of “one hit wonders” from the past and the answer becomes obvious. This problem becomes deeper when said song either belongs to or helps define a certain scene or subgenre of music. In this regard, Washed Out's career has mostly amounted to being known as one of the main pillars of chillwave as well as being the guy who made the music ('Feel It All Around') that Portlandia uses for its theme song.
Even setting aside whether or not he'll ever top 'Feel It All Around', it's obvious that Within and Without is destined to either disappoint or please only those who want more of the same. To be sure, there is no song here as good as 'Feel It All Around', and even this record's best moments don't top what he's done before. I will concede that they do often meet the level of his preceding material if only because they sound practically the same.
That's no exaggeration. The main difference between this album and the previous EPs is that the production is even more smooth and bright. Tracks like 'Before' and 'Eyes Be Closed' are the audio equivalent of when you bump up the exposure time on a camera and everything becomes blindingly bright and, er, washed out. What's more, even while the lyrics may occasionally be dark or unsettled, the music goes down as smooth as a particularly sweet German-style white wine. Sometimes, contradictory lyrics and music can work well...but not here.
As for the smoothness part, that's the other minor new wrinkle on Within and Without: most of the harder beats and murky lo-fi/mid-fi production of the EPs are gone. In their place Washed Out has taken a few steps closer to out-and-out synth-pop, albeit a spaced out, slow motion, and dreamy kind of synth-pop. Unfortunately, this sounds much more interesting and memorable than it is. Even when he's attempting something new, as on the electric piano ballad 'A Dedication', the music has a curious ability to be forgotten soon after. When there are hooks, they don't so much sink into you as they pass right through; more like arrows than hooks, really. If you'll allow a bit of autobiography, I'll note here that I listened to this record at least three times before starting this review and I still can't name a song or hum a melody without having to consult iTunes.
Within and Without is an enjoyable, impossible to hate record even if it does have arrows-instead-of-hooks which neither cause pain nor get your attention. Without any rough edges or imperfections, this record ends up being the hipster equivalent of smooth jazz or muzak. It's the perfect soundtrack for American Apparel magazine advertisements or the fifth or sixth day of a staycation, when you're almost looking forward to going back to work because you've been sleeping too much.
3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5