When “Saltwater,” the first track on Beach House’s 2006 self-titled record begins, it feels like stepping into a time capsule, a perfectly preserved moment from long ago. The air is thick and dusty, as the distant hum of what seems like the sea and a slow but distinct fuzz of noise comes into focus, like the opening notes of a music box. It’s a world all on its own, enchanting and perfectly distilled with a certain kind of yearning, an all-knowing nostalgia that accesses a specific set of emotions while tapping into a certain universality. From their origins, the Baltimore pair came fully formed with Victoria Legrand’s all-knowing organ and contralto that lingers and soars and Alex Scally’s sliding guitar that can ooze and scream sometimes both in the course of one song. Such unison has only become more seamless and more confident throughout the course of their discography, making up perhaps one of the most diligent indie bands out there right now. Together, Legrand and Scally have been consistently working and releasing records for the past 13 years. With each effort, their sound has become a bit more precise as they continue to hone their skills and further develop their repertoire.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Scally mentioned that they don’t believe in changing very much from album to album, causing each subsequent release to feel like a natural progression, a minute extension. Their most noticeable sonic growth, however, came in 2010 with the stunning Teen Dream, a full-bodied and thoroughly satisfying follow-up to their sophomore record Devotion. It was Teen Dream that had the band out of the attic and out the door as they adopted clearer footing and a wider range of sounds that unravel with repeated listens like the sun peeking through after an afternoon rain. Their two previous records had dealt with emotion but never quite as directly. Legrand’s contralto reverberates as the instrumentation mirrors the ache for what once was and what could have been. Working with producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio) and signing to Sub Pop, the record exemplified the grand precision of their craft and an evocative attention to mood and detail.
Then on 2012’s Bloom, a further step forward that felt fuller than anything that came before, Legrand asks, “What comes after this momentary bliss?” on the opener, the gorgeously crystalline “Myth.” On one hand, it impeccably encapsulates the band’s primary thematic concerns regarding a certain grief for the inevitable passage of time, a nostalgia and a yearning for what is happening before one’s eyes, an abstract and impressionist perception of memories and moments. On another, it implicitly addresses concerns about the band’s subsequent sonic capabilities. With Bloom, it appeared as though Legrand and Scally had reached their full potential under the impression that each record had been a step forward, a progressively darker coloring within the outlines that they initially started with.
In 2015, the band subverted expectations completely with two records, Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars. These affirmed the understanding that the band’s discography is not necessarily a linear progression, but one that poses things from different angles, making certain details more prominent than before and revisiting perhaps previously covered ground to reach newfound conclusions. Their lack of concern for any grand sonic change from record to record impressed upon the fact that, above anything else, Legrand and Scally are musicians heavily devoted to their craft, existing somehow on a different plane of space and time- one that feels as foreign as it is familiar and as intoxicating as it is fleeting. On the breathtaking Depression Cherry closer, “Days of Candy,” Legrand utters in her ever mesmerizing contralto,
“I know it comes too soon, I know it stays for nobody, I want to know you there. The universe is riding off with you.”
It is this indescribable feeling that the band has been excavating all along, one that is wildly palpable in the all-consuming soundscapes they construct, one that has continued to evolve with the band’s seventh proper record, 7.
It feels too grandiose to suggest that 7 is their largest development since Teen Dream, or since ever. It also feels a disservice to the way that Legrand and Scally work to evaluate the album solely on its differences, of which there are a lot of. The record came about after they released last year’s B-Sides and Rarities, a collection of previously released tracks that they put out as if to exhume old efforts and confines. It was as if the band had abandoned any trace of their past that had been keeping them in a corner. In a press release to introduce the new record, Legrand and Scally mentioned that 7 was the first time in which they abandoned any recording limitations that arose from not being able to recreate the sounds in a live setting. Such deviations are distinctly present on the album, risks that pay off impeccably. Never before have the band sounded so adventurous, expanding their palate and embracing a certain darkness that translates to their sonic choices. Take, for instance, first single, “Lemon Glow,” a meditation on desire and the thrill of intimacy with tensely strobing synths pushing and pulling throughout before a bass drum demands lights out. Sonically and lyrically, it feels unmistakably like a Beach House song but never has their longing sounded so urgent, even aggressive.
This time around, more than ever, the music poses an impressionistic mirror to the politically turbulent mood of the times, a perplexing chaos that the band tackles with grace and congruence. The album opens and hits the ground running with “Dark Spring.” A sudden rumble of churning drums precedes a heavy exhale of shoegaze: hypnotic instrumentation resembling a lit fuse going in circles and exploding before it hits the ground. Scally’s guitar screeches in a way that would make Kevin Shields proud while Legrand and her opaque lyrics remain rooted in the foreground. This willingness to embrace and integrate a harsher edge is not surprising. Instead, it feels as though they are finally reaching a mark that they have long expressed an inclination for, and as with everything Beach House do, it’s all in the details: the hypnotically layered French seance of “L’Inconnue,” the repetitive beat over xylophone and synths on “Black Car,” the Mazzy Star twinkle of acoustic guitar on “Lose Your Smile,” the propulsive chug of guitar and percussion that obliterates the latter half of “Dive.” These nuances are all the more satisfying as they feel like a step forward that encompasses everything that has come before it. No deviation feels out of place, but only like polished growth that’s been refined throughout the course of their discography.
In the same press release, the band mentions their interest in exploring the emotional and psychological reactions to the recent political developments in the world, a concern that has led to the creation of their most atmospheric and immersive album yet. The songs, positioned in the way that art imitates life, reflect this, what the band refers to as
“the beauty that arises in dealing with darkness; the empathy and love that grows from collective trauma… the twisted double edge of glamour, with its perils and perfect moments…”
Legrand and Scally’s abstract and impressionistic songwriting has become more precise while still leaving room for interpretation. On lush centerpiece, “Drunk in LA,” Legrand utters a remarkable pair of lines in its chorus:
“Memory is a sacred meat that’s drying all the time / On a hillside, I remember I am loving losing life.”
Beach House have always been concerned with fleeting youth and the inevitable passage of time, but never before has it been so biting. Like the omniscient narrator she is, Legrand has seen the world as it is, struggling to find meaning in its artifice and reaching no reassuring conclusion. Under shimmering lights and a galaxy of synths, “Woo” sparkles with a dual meaning. “I want it all, but I can’t have it / It inches by, but I cannot say much,” croons Legrand, perhaps taking on the role of a passive spectator faced with unrequited love. But the band’s stated intentions add a layer of meaning that relates to a certain glass ceiling attributed to passivity and femininity. The desire is there, but the object is ultimately unobtainable.
The album closes with “Last Ride,” a dirge-like embrace that begins with sparse piano keys. At its outset, it feels like revisiting a destination that has been arrived at before. There is a muted restraint and distance that recalls the opening minute of “Saltwater” that began their self-titled first record. Then, at the halfway mark, the track splits open, allowing light to flood in along with steady percussion and Scally’s guitar work. If “Saltwater” was the band looking out through the blinds, then “Last Ride” is them reveling in the light. With their boldest and most sweeping record yet, Beach House remind us that change and growth are difficult processes that happen gradually and all at once, but necessary courses of action regardless. They’ve also reminded us that art is a middle ground that inherently juxtaposes reality and imagination, a balance that seems integral now more than ever.