In 2012, the indie-pop duo Beach House took the stage in Central Park, in front of nearly five thousand people, one of the biggest audiences of their career. The band, made up of vocalist and keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally, had made a name for themselves first within Baltimore’s eclectic scene and later around the world. The music was woozy and impressionistic, but also steady and labored. He had become synonymous with the term “dream-pop”, part of a lineage that includes the work of artists from the Beach Boys to My Bloody Valentine. On Beach House’s self-titled debut album, from 2006, Legrand and Scally used nothing but guitar, Yamaha keyboard and organ to produce a thick, lo-fi cover of chirping sounds that relied on elements of doo-wop, drone, and shoegaze, but sounded unmistakably new. The chemistry that had been forged between Legrand and Scally gave the music a kind of twilight mysticism. Over time, they incorporated more polish and grandeur, but they held fast to the daydreaming of their music and its structural simplicity, usually built on a few continuously looping chords. When consumed, as expected, as a full album, their sound took on the haunting, metronomic quality of an ECG machine.
By their fourth album, 2012’s “Bloom,” Beach House had reached the upper limits of cult fame. Kendrick Lamar had sampled one of his songs, “Silver Soul,” on a single called “Money Trees,” and the Weeknd used a Beach House track on his mixtape, “House of Balloons.” When Beach House performed in Central Park, a storm swept overhead and ultimately cut the show short. Most artists might interpret such an event as a mere inconvenience on the path to greater fame, but Legrand and Scally took it as a sign that they needed to retreat. “I think it’s a bit of fate,” Legrand recently told British music magazine NME. “Any time we’ve gotten to a point where we might feel like we’re about to explode or something, that’s just not the case.” Indulging in their newfound popularity had felt like an act of self-betrayal. Scally explained, “After that, we went against really big venues.”
When it comes to music, fans tend to believe that reinvention is the bedrock of artistic genius. It was true for David Bowie and Prince, and it’s often true for artists today: relentless innovation is a prerequisite for survival in an age of streaming that values novelty so fiercely. But the balance and stubborn uniformity of the Beach House catalog offers a rebuttal to our obsession with reinvention. In fifteen years and eight albums, each excellent in their own right, the duo have retained the same stylistic principles, even as their peers have broken up, forged solo careers, experimented with different genres and opened their records to a multitude of collaborators. “I hate it when bands change between records,” Scally told an interviewer in 2012. Clarity of vision and consistency are the pillars of integrity, the most significant value in the world of Legrand and Scally.
After “Bloom”, Beach House took a break, then recorded “Depression Cherry”. When the album was released in 2015, the duo offered a statement to describe their withdrawal from the mainstream in stubborn and somewhat pious terms. “With the growing success of ‘Teen Dream’ and ‘Bloom’, bigger stages and bigger venues naturally led us to a louder, more aggressive place; a place further away from our natural tendencies,” they explained. “Here, we continue to let ourselves evolve while completely ignoring the commercial context in which we operate.” On the album, their first of two that year, they reduced the drum boom, reducing the percussion to ticker silence. Legrand’s voice became higher and calmer, and they incorporated new elements, such as a choir. Some songs became heavier and more atmospheric, thanks to the whine of Scally’s slide guitar. But the record was largely – at the risk of boredom – a return to form, filled with faded bits and muffled whispers of melodies.
That’s not to say that Beach House’s work is stagnant or without adventure. His albums look a bit like vast stretches of pebble beach – pristine and even from a distance, but full of idiosyncrasies up close. On their latest album, 2018’s “7,” the band expanded their scope to include French-language vocals, distortion pedal, and a kind of sprawling psychedelia. “Once Twice Melody”, his new disc, is the most ambitious and the most dynamic. The album was released gradually, in chapters, the last of which will be released later this month. It’s unmistakably a Beach House record, but it’s also an expansive, sometimes fantastical project, accentuated by big orchestral flourishes and 80s synth-pop glamour. of the group to date, but it is also so sublimely pictorial that one wonders why the directors and musical supervisors did not harass Legrand and Scally to create film scores.
Legrand is classically trained, but his voice tends to sound more instinctive than technical. She has a deep, androgynous voice reminiscent of Nico’s icy drawl. Instead of describing or telling, she sketches out scenes with lyrics that invite the listener to fill in the blanks. On “Silver Soul,” a track with a painful drone, she sings, “It’s happening again,” leaving open the possibility that “it” could be something cataclysmic or something miraculous. This tendency towards emotional ambiguity is another of Beach House’s silent acts of resistance at a time when streaming services have replaced genres with moods as their primary method of categorization. (Here’s some music to cheer you up. Here is music to relax.) Beach House songs can blur the lines between moody and ecstatic, refusing to prescribe a desired effect, allowing the music to be moody without specifying what mood.
That’s true on “Once Twice Melody,” but particular themes become clearer. Many songs include an interplay between sinister and saccharine. “Once upon a time in a fairy tale/Then it all went to hell/Swans on a starry lake/Hearts that had to break,” Legrand sings on “Pink Funeral,” over shimmering synth scales and an arrangement of melodramatic strings. Images of romance and youth imbue the album’s chapters with a moody femininity. “Last night I made a mistake, now I want to get dressed,” Legrand sings, his voice toned in a robotic tone, on “New Romance.” “Finale” evokes the starry-eyed innocence of ’60s girl bands as Legrand sings about lollipops, polka-dot outfits, confetti and roller-skating in parking lots – almost babbling naively: “Memory likes to talk a lot / I don’t care because I know I’ll forget it.
If artistic reinvention is an effort to escape mortality, then perhaps constancy is a way of forcing us to confront it. Many song titles give the work a sense of boredom and impending finality. “Again and Again”, “Another Go Around”, “Illusion of Forever”, “Pink Funeral”, “Finale”. On “New Romance”, Legrand sings, “It’s starting to look like the end / So sick of swimming, I’m in over my head.” Beach House’s music rarely addresses a specific topic, but, in the final two chapters of the album, it sounds like Legrand is singing to Scally about the hermetic quality of their partnership. On “Another Go Around”, a piece with the dark and courteous gravity of a hymn, Legrand sings: “Another go around, and I’m right thereside you. / Another turn, and you’re here. ♦