In Brief: Removing some of the self-imposed limitations on their hazy, intentionally un-commercial dream pop sound works wonders for Beach House on several of these new tracks, especially the singles. Even though they fall back on old habits by record’s end, this is still a more diverse and dynamic record than anything I’ve heard from them thus far, and I’m finally starting to feel like it’s worth peeling back the obscuring layers of sound to get in touch with the mood and meaning of their songs.
Beach House is not a group that’s been easy for me to get into over the years. The Baltimore-based dream pop duo has a knack for intentionally drowning the vocals and some of the instrumentation in their songs in fuzz and reverb, deliberately hiding the “pop” beneath the “dream” much of the time. The memorable melodies, interesting snippets of lyrics, and skeletal guitar figures that stick in your head are present for those willing to find them. And it’s not like I think they’re aiming for a target that they’re not hitting – Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally strike me as the sort of musical recluses who almost want to put up barriers that require a bit of work to truly appreciate their music. If you’re only listening for immediate hooks, you’re gonna quickly get bored and go somewhere else, and that’s probably fine by them. That was never my issue with the band. It had more to do with the set of rather extreme limitations they imposed upon themselves, spending much of 2012’s Bloom and especially 2015’s twin releases Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars constraining their studio arrangements to what they could recreate live with just two people and a purposefully outdated drum machine. There wasn’t much sonic variation to speak of, making all three of those records a bit of a chore for me to get through, despite some clear highlights. What struck me as interesting – and kept me stubbornly coming back to those records even though I knew it would be a slog to listen to any of them in their entirety – was that the highlights didn’t seem to be a betrayal of their overall aesthetic in any way. “Wild” was a refreshing indie pop gem simply due to its use of syncopation and a brighter melodic hook; “Sparks” made interesting use of more fiery and abrasive textures despite its slow, methodical approach, and “On the Sea”, “Elegy to the Void” and “Somewhere Tonight” were all gorgeous ballads in their own unique ways. I felt downright blessed by those songs, but not a whole lot else truly jumped out at me over the years until just recently.
Enter 7, Beach House’s appropriately titled seventh album. It’s not a radical shift in sound for the band – anyone who’s been listening over the years would pretty much easily recognize it as them from the very first notes of nearly any song. But they’ve embraced a bit more diversity in their studio methods, giving themselves permission to make good use of live drummer James Barone (who isn’t an official member of the band, but may as well be for the sake of this release), and to not force the same instrumentation to play a role in every song if they decided one worked better without guitars or keyboards, or with multiples of either instrument. The ever-present drum programming mixes well with the live drums on several cases, they strip back the layers to make room for some intimacy on a few ballads (which is something they admittedly did a pretty good job of before), and if a glossier synth hook or a more driving rhythm needs to come to the forefront on a few tracks, they’re no longer afraid of it. Will it attract some look-ee-loos who probably wouldn’t get into their core sound? Yeah, probably. (I might still be a borderline look-ee-loo myself, considering my lukewarm response to their older material.) But I think there’s just enough diversity to convince a curious listener to stick around once the most upbeat songs from this set (which is admittedly only a few) have concluded. I was actually surprised to find myself getting downright excited for the release of this album after hearing its first few singles, despite my usual “ho-hum” response to most of Beach House’s stuff, so that’s gotta be saying something.
Perhaps what excites me even more than any particular song on this record is the little essay that Beach House wrote explaining 7. Rather than titling the record thematically after any of its subject matter, they chose to envision it as a rebirth for the band, a creative renaissance that gave them liberty to do things they might have considered out of bounds before. They note that the number 7 can be written ambiguously to look like the number 1, and that in a way, this feels like it could be the first album in a new phase of their career. Even when I’m not over the moon about all of the results, I like hearing a band explain how they’ve rediscovered their passion for making music in a way that hadn’t quite struck them before. They just seem more interested in the material throughout 7 than they did on some of the dull dirges heard on those last few albums. And I’m sure hardcore fans of their sound might disagree, or pick up on more nuances in their songs that sound “all the same” to listeners like me, but I think it’s meaningful that they haven’t left those fans in the lurch. They’ve augmented their tool kit considerably, but they haven’t abandoned their core sound, and when 7 hits its stride, I think it comes a lot closer to the euphoric dream state they’ve been trying to invoke in the listener all along. Honestly, I’ve probably spun this one more times in just over a month than I’ve listened to their last three albums combined. Even though I still think it’s far from a perfect record, I feel like that’s really saying something.
1. Dark Spring
I’m excited for this one from the moment the drums kick in. Hearing live drums on a Beach House song is refreshing, and I’m not used to their songs being so action-packed. It’s like they’ve pulled off the perfect balance between the melody and structure of a pop song, and the esoteric lyrics and hazy textures of shoegaze. (Fans of My Bloody Valentine might dig it.) The guitars and keyboards don’t so much lead the song as they bleed into it in interesting ways, and Victoria’s vocals sound even more whispery and androgynous than normal, possibly because Alex is backing her up – either way there are multiple vocal layers, and it’s a different approach from what I’m used to from here. It’s all such an intoxicating mixture that I don’t mind only barely being able to understand what’s being sung. The verse lyrics are parceled out slowly, one word at a time, and they seem to evoke some sort of catastrophe happening on an intergalactic level: “Dark red light years/Brought near/Cold gone glowing/Night sing/Star death ringing/Brought fear.” Honestly, the lyrics could be total gibberish and it wouldn’t even faze me – that’s how powerful this arrangement is to me, just based on the music alone. I may be overselling it by saying that it quickly became my favorite Beach House song, but to me it meshes clarity with obscurity in all the right ways to make sure that the gorgeous melody and energetic performance captivate me even while it’s never quite clear what exactly is going on beneath the surface.
2. Pay No Mind
The big, messy sonic wipe that abruptly ends “Dark Spring” makes for a jarring and yet perfect segue into this slow dirge of a track – which would honestly be an annoying change of pace if this wasn’t the sort of thing I had been conditioned to expect from a normal Beach House song. Perhaps it’s the way they shove the drums up front that makes me not mind the sudden drop in tempo – the two songs are at least consistently focused on rhythm, and this one has a slow, but still melodic electric guitar hook that gives the track a strong identity right away. Victoria’s vocals sound more like the dreamily sad tone I’ve come to expect from her, as she tries to fathom the distance that has grown between her and a lover, which to her feels like the cold vastness of space. Apparently she’s trying to come to terms with the fact that it could be over, with nothing left between them to salvage. It’s a sad song that deserves its funereal arrangement, but I think it’s interesting how the ambient keyboards and layered vocals let a little color into the song near the end. This all works out to be a far more engaging performance than it probably would have been if the band had recorded a song with the exact same melody, tempo and lyrics on an earlier album.
3. Lemon Glow
The first single released from the project is a pretty good way to gauge your own response to the gradual shift in Beach House’s song. The programming is more prominent here – and by the band’s own admission, they composed the rhythm on a “shitty ’90s drum machine that we found in L.A. in like 2012”. Its most defining characteristic is a repetitive, droning synth melody that seems to bend up and down with every note as it cycles through the song’s simple chord progression. If the cold, robotic beat and the greasy guitar textures evoke the dark grey colors of a dimly lit garage, then the synths are the bare yellow bulb that suddenly gets turned on, illuminating the stark space around it. The lyrics are vague as hell, but they seem to describe a late-night encounter that brings two distant lovers back together again, if only for a night. This seems like a positive thing as the titular “lemon color honey glow” injects a bit of sticky-sweet goodness back into their otherwise dull relationship. But then, after some live drum fills come in to give the song more of a sense of climax than an older Beach House song would’ve, it all ends with the ominous phrase “Candy-colored misery/The color of your mind.” So maybe this reunion feels like a good thing, but it comes up empty, like a starving person substituting sugary candy for actual sustenance.
Victoria, who was born in Paris, mines her French heritage to come up one of the most experimental and strikingly different arrangements in the Beach House catalogue thus far. There are two definite halves to this song, the first of which is dominated by Victoria’s blissed-out vocals layered in a round, each line of the lyrics clustering around itself to create one of the album’s most superbly dreamlike passages: “Seven girls/At the end of day/She who sings/She who prays/Side by side/In a line/See their eyes.” Starry synths are layered over this slow progression, and then midway through the song, still with very sparse keyboard accompaniment, the song shifts to French, in which Victoria can be heard counting to seven before telling some sort of a creepy story contrasting saints and whores and ending up with a body in the Seine River. It’s creepy stuff, but it’s all delivered quite soothingly, with the English phrase “Little girl, you could be loved” standing out near the end, as a sort of plea to a woman who presumably feels like she has lost her innocence and is considering ending her life. The way they mix the angelic backing vocals into this part of the song is just heavenly, but I also appreciate how, to keep the arrangement from being too tranquil, a drum machine and some distorted fills from the live drums come in to perk up the final minutes of the song until it fades out. It took me a long time to really appreciate this one, and I still think it’s a bit of a speed bump in the overall flow of the album, but a track like this was going to sound like an oddball pretty much anywhere, so it’s probably better that it shows up before too many samey tracks in a row (which is a bit of an issue later in the album) tempt the listener to tune out.
5. Drunk in LA
I’ve pointed out a few times that Beach House’s lyrics can be rather minimal and esoteric, but I have to say that Victoria’s really outdone herself with the story of a down-and-out starlet reminiscing about her glory days on this track. Of course it’s super depressing, as most of the Beach House lyrics I can at least sort of understand appear to be, but she’s packed a lot of arresting visual details in there, which due to the dreamy delivery is something that I had completely overlooked at first. What jumped out at me initially was the sputtering, glowy synth that leads off this track, eventually giving way to the slow drum programming and buzzing organ and guitar that become its rhythmic backbone. I might even consider the electric guitar part near the end a “solo” due to how it rises above the rest of the arrangement – just not in the typical “bring the crowd to their feet” sort of way. It’s an interesting arrangement, even if it’s not as immediately attention-grabbing as some of the louder songs that have more live instrumentation. This one’s not a definite favorite of mine yet, but it’s slowly getting there.
The second single was the one that initially got me excited – “Dark Spring” was still a few weeks out from being unveiled at that point, and this track quite nicely toyed with my expectations of what a new Beach House song was going to sound like. The slow melodic approach with the droning organ at the beginning, the stark, watery guitar chords, and a barely-there thumping bass drum to keep time, seemed like the kind of thing that could have sustained an entire song of their in the past. But Victoria’s lyrics were delicately echoing each other, and something about the melody was naggingly familiar, like I’d actually heard a shoegaze band do something with this sort of a progression in the 90s yet I couldn’t quite place it. My sixth sense kicked in and told me there was going to be a big change-up and this song was going to end up having a huge arrangement, and shockingly, I was right. If the first part of the song is about two people communicating the desire to dive deeper into a relationship and work past the instinct to protect the parts of themselves they’d rather keep hidden in order to understand each other more deeply, then the second part seems to communicate some real hope that those walls can truly be knocked down. A much chunkier programmed rhythm quickly fades in, announcing that it’s time to stop moping and start dancing, and there’s a nice layering of the lead and rhythm guitars, where the rhythm part is literally just one note that rattles over and over again while the smeared-out lead part weaves a triumphant melody around it. Suddenly the ocean waves are raging, the earth is teeming with life, and perhaps the couple is standing there on the beach, finding a common source of joy in the colorful scene opening up before them. I certainly get a lot of joy from this track. It’d easily be my favorite Beach House track if I hadn’t already said that about “Dark Spring”.
7. Black Car
While the back half of the album is considerably more downbeat and less varied than the front half, it opens strongly enough with this trance-like song, an easy standout due to the cool, bubbling synth sounds looping through its moody, minor key melody over and over again. It doesn’t seem to have the verse/chorus structure of a typical song, instead employing different vocal parts that eventually overlap as we get deeper in and the guitars and synths humming in the background slowly get turned up like a source of ambient light. It’s a great song to zone out to, while the little sonic details reward paying closer attention as well. The lyrics are more on the impressionistic side, so I couldn’t tell you what it’s really about, beyond the eerie imagery of wanting to explore some sort of a cold, underground, tomb-like place. But the arrangement’s intriguing enough that it’s really all I need. I especially enjoy the “ba-boom” sound from the drums that comes in at the end, as everything else is fading out. It resembles a heartbeat, or perhaps fireworks going off in the distance, and it evokes a sense of euphoric wonder, reminding me of when a similar sound was used in the Sigur Rós classic “Starálfur”.
8. Lose Your Smile
I don’t recall the acoustic guitar standing out prominently in a lot of Beach House songs. This seems like it would give this track an advantage, since normally I’m intrigued by the combination of synths and acoustic instruments – at least when it’s the acoustic stuff permeating into a heavily processed or programmed arrangement rather than the other way around. But the opening strum – and even the finger-picking during the verses – strikes me as rather basic that it does nothing to add to a song with an already plodding pace and a repetitive structure. I can vaguely appreciate the lighter, more “beachy” atmosphere that the duo seems to be going for, particularly when they bring in a laid-back guitar part that seems like it’s been drenched in slow-motion surf and mai tais. But the general pace of it makes it quickly grows tedious. I’m also not really connecting with the lyrics, which seem to be outright advising someone to give up on their youth and their dreams, before pulling an out-of-character 180 and humming “Dreams, baby, do come true” again and again near the end.
“I want it all, but I can’t have it.” The slow-to-mid-tempo slog towards the end of the album continues with this song about unfulfilled dreams, which is a slight bit more engaging in terms of how its drums and synths are programmed, but which stands out less to me for its melody and more for little moments in the song that seem to play youthful innocence and jaded adulthood off of each other. There are a few vocal samples sprinkled throughout the track that sound like a young girl speaking, singing, or giggling, drenched in reverb as if to depict a distant memory of a happier time one can never return to. The most jarring aspect of the song is a lyric that I didn’t even notice at first, because it seems to happen in a layered backing vocal behind Victoria’s lead vocal – “You don’t give a fuck.” It shows up twice, and due to how lax she tends to be with enunciation, I could have sworn I was mishearing some other lyric (which actually happened to me on “Rough Song” from Thank Your Lucky Stars, with the line “another vodka cocktail party” sounding a lot dirtier to my ears than it actually was). It’s the laid-back delivery that makes it sting – like she’s stopped caring even about the fact that she doesn’t care. I’d make a joke about this being a potential theme song for Melania Trump, but I’d like to think I’m not that petty. (Just kidding. I’m totally that petty.) There’s a lot more going on here than just that, but since the overall arrangement isn’t quite as engaging as I’d like it to be, I’ll admit I’m less motivated to dig into the overlapping lyrical parts that make up this song’s refrain.
10. Girl of the Year
Even while most of the songs in the album’s back half aren’t engaging me on a musical level, I do have to say that Beach House is doing a pretty good job of exploring the whole theme of fame and fortune leaving a person as a hollow shell. They’ve built upon this idea in “Drunk in LA” and “Woo”, perhaps alluded to it in “L’Inconnue” and “Lose Your Smile” as well, and here it seems to culminate in a sad retelling of a young starlet’s night out on the town: “Get dressed to undress/Depress to impress/All night long.” It’s like she’s being celebrated as the cream of the Hollywood crop, but for all the most superficial reasons, leaving her with no real human connections after the people around her have fawned over her beauty and taken advantage of her hesitance to say no to their wishes. It’s a bummer of a story that I guess calls for a moody arrangement, but the continuous fog of synths hanging in the air and an unrelenting slow drum march doesn’t do a whole lot to stimulate the imagination. It’s Beach House 101, just with a tad more live percussion, and by this point in any of their albums, I tend to be bored with that sound. You could slip any of this batch of three songs from tracks 8-10 into the back half of Bloom and I probably wouldn’t notice much of a difference, honestly.
11. Last Ride
Beach House albums do tend to end with a track that tries to change up their typical arrangement somehow. “Irene” was unfortunately the nadir of Bloom due to its sheer length, but “Days of Candy” and especially “Somewhere Tonight” were interesting curveballs on their two 2015 releases. This one seems like it’s going to take a pretty, delicate motif and drag it out over a seven-minute run time at first – I like the clarity of the simple piano melody that loops throughout its opening verses, as hazy guitar feedback is gradually slowly overlaid on top of it. But then at minute three, it’s like the duo suddenly realizes the need to course correct, and they bump the tempo up a few notches, which they don’t pull off quite as slickly as the transition between the two halves of “L’Inconnue”. The melody shifts slightly, repositioning the song as a sort of eulogy as our sad heroine fades slowly off into the sunset, and for a few minutes there it seems like the group is going to pull off a breathtaking climax. The tempo of the song appears to keep speeding up almost imperceptibly as more and more layers of glowing electric guitar are piled on top of Victoria’s whispery farewell – this all seems primed to explode into something huge, but it never quite gets there. I do like that the final fadeout is just those layers of guitar, echoing off into the night for about a minute and a half after the rest of the song has concluded – it’s a nice, reflective way to end the album. I just wanted this song to transform in more of a radical way to set it apart from the series of slow marches in 4/4 time that led up to it for the better part of the last fifteen minutes. While 7 does a lot more with tempo variance than most Beach House albums do, I feel like not having an “On the Sea” or a “Somewhere Tonight” to break out of the common time doldrums really ends up hurting the latter half of the record. I might feel a little more of an affinity for this song if it had a little more variance leading up to it, I guess, but it’s still a reasonably good finale.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Dark Spring $2
Pay No Mind $1
Lemon Glow $1.25
Drunk in LA $1.25
Black Car $1.25
Lose Your Smile $0
Girl of the Year $.25
Last Ride $.75
Victoria Legrand: Lead vocals, keyboards
Alex Scally: Guitars, keyboards, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: