Give credit where it’s due: “Chillwave” has always had a good handle on itself, towing the line between self-awareness and self-consciousness. It’s a balancing act that trips up even the most accomplished pop musicians. The failure on chillwave’s part has usually been in its emotional locus. Ambiguity and, at its worst, apathy pervade in most corners from ur act Washed Out to indie corollaries Real Estate. Tanlines strikes at the heart of this matter, by diving straight into matters of the heart-mind complex.
Mixed Emotions still hews closely to the genre specifics that have been established since 2009, with a few clear differences. In this case, the emotional obscurity comes not from lack of investment but a pervasive ambivalence. Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm really can’t decide between making “just” pop music and something a bit more resonant. This is most evident during the persuasive one-two opening punch: First comes “Brothers,” which embraces a dark tribal beat and a nostalgia-baiting sense of inner doubt (“You’re just the same as you ever were / You fight and you don’t wonder why it makes no sense / I’m just the same as I ever been / But I’m the only one who doesn’t notice it”). “All of Me” follows with a transcendent and universal cheesiness that sends acts as disparate as Robyn and early Killers soaring. It’s chock full of potentially platitudinous bromides, like “Say the things that no one else / will ever dare” and “Do what you don’t do.” But the chemistry is right, with equal parts uplift and unadulterated enthusiasm.
The thoughtfulness and method are the result of a partnership that precedes the trend. Both Cohen (Professor Murder) and Emm (Don Caballero, Storm & Stress) are of a more ecstatic and well-defined pedigree than most of their contemporaries. What’s more, when placed up against Emm’s work with Cohen on Professor Murder material, Tanlines represents a rather logical (and slick) progression for the two. And I do emphasize progression, as the development cycle for these two is measured in years as opposed to months, weeks, or even days. Tanlines first cut their teeth as a project by deconstructing and recompiling (in stronger configurations) tracks from Glasser, El Guincho and Memory Tapes to name a few, before putting out “Real Life” in 2010. That song appears on Mixed Emotions, and while it has aged reasonably well, it is much more revealing as a foundational document. Its building blocks — African drums, dubby underbelly, upper register synths, and revelation through repetition — are dispatched to great effect throughout the album on “Cactus,” “Yes Way,” and “Not The Same,” respectively. It proves out Tanlines’ development through context within their own work in much the same way that Tanlines’ musicianship is proven out within the greater context of the genre.
The 1980s have been completely excavated at this point, with raw materials from Paul Simon to New Order completely exhausted. Even Commonwealth yelpers like The Proclaimers and Men At Work have been shaken down for one last crack at a dwindling gold rush. The opportunity at hand is refinement. Tanlines saw the endgame even as Hipster Runoff and Altered Zones were splitting the field wide open. They eschewed of-the-moment opportunism for a tinkering strategy of remixes, EPs and experimentation. By biding their time, Tanlines was able to expand on the good and eschew the ugly from a generally bad strain of pop music. The result is an album that is as notable on its own as it is in the historical chillwave narrative. They come not to praise the genre, but to bury it.