For a band 14 years and seven albums into their career, the Beach House experience can only be described as phenomenally untroubled. The personal turbulence and aesthetic sputters that come to plague virtually all bands seem to have passed Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally by completely. Everything has fallen into place for them at exactly the right time; their superb new LP 7 only confirms the impression, by now long established, of an exceptionally fortunate concordance.
They met, both freshly accredited by liberal arts colleges, in Baltimore. Legrand (Vassar ’03), a lapsed actress with roots in France and Philadelphia, played piano and sang; Scally (Oberlin ’04), a Baltimore native, programmed drum machines and played guitar. The aptness of their partnership was immediately clear to both; before long it became clear to the wider world. Hazy soundscapes, charged with winning harmonies and presided over by Legrand’s majestic vocals, were how they identified themselves. It was hardly an unprecedented sound, but the two were inventive enough to work fresh variations on it — to attach a new wing, so to speak, to the existing dream house.
Of course they happened on the perfect name for their act: with its intimations of dazed, luxuriant relaxation in the proximity of ceaseless waves, the beautiful appeal of Beach House was impossible to overlook. Their good fortune even extended to their reception: between the prestigious and easily legible indie heritage (Mazzy Star, Cocteau Twins, any shoegaze band you like) behind them and their impeccable self-presentation, Beach House was precisely the kind of band that Pitchfork was created to laud, and they happened to emerge exactly while the website’s influence was ballooning to huge proportions.
From 2006’s Beach House on, the albums came and went like moods: not quite big, but always big enough. The albums could never be reduced to each other, but the adjustments between them were always minor, and always tasteful. The affective intensity has been especially consistent. Except on rare occasions, like their 2010 album Teen Dream, the sound of Legrand’s voice tends toward dissociation: instead of inhabiting them fully, she always seems to hover a few feet above the images and narratives her lyrics name, an effect greatly accentuated by the blur of ever-present reverb. The feeling of the Beach House sound is, in this sense, an abstract experience: it’s the pleasure of being emotionally stable. Even when they named a 2015 album Depression Cherry, it was hard to make out any angst or misery through the billowing synths; if anything, we thought of vivid red, a cool sweet taste, the proximity to cheery.
When even depression feels rich in spirit, something probably needs to change. The cushioned surfaces that typified 7’s six predecessors had served, I suspect, an antidepressant function: the vaporous resonance, in its deferral of meaning, canceled out any potential sources of stress. For the polished hordes of fresh liberal arts majors experiencing some combination of hazardous emotion and economic insecurity between 2006 and 2015, Beach House’s music served as a potent reminder that the good life was still in reach, still affordable.
In a new era defined by the impossibility of comfort and ease, the music will necessarily change, and it’s to Legrand and Scally’s credit that they recognize as much: remarking on the creative process behind 7, they stated that the “societal insanity of 2016-17 was also deeply influential, as it must be for most artists these days.” True to their word, the lyrics on 7 are more frostbitten than usual, the band’s customary cool lowering into colder spaces: a kind of bleakness seeps into the language of “darkened, dead-end rooms” and “the cold […] like a tomb.” But since the meanings still drift away faster than they can be registered, the more important impact comes at the sonic level, where textures harder than any on their prior albums present themselves repeatedly.
Commanded by Peter Kember, a.k.a. Sonic Boom from Spacemen 3, the production swaps out the ambience of clouds and waves for something clearer, more edged and more spacious. The guitars still float, but now, at times, they also grind (“Dive”) and sting (“Lemon Glow”). The drum machines have been swapped out for the band’s live drummer, James Barone, and the gain in vitality is palpable. Certain tracks (“Black Car”) sport trap-adjacent drums, the skeletal clicks imparting a new, jittery dynamism; more traditional rock beats ("Dark Spring”) surge crisply forward. The shoegaze comparisons are more convincing now; the gentle, crunching echoes of My Bloody Valentine on “Pay No Mind” are unmistakable. There’s also, in the spectacle of Legrand’s chilled, borderline stoned, meditations on feminine images and glamour, a distinct trace of Lana Del Rey’s Honeymoon. I’m not sure if 7 qualifies as a darkly, directly political album (there’s nothing to gain from framing it that way), but the darkness and directness of its sound, combined with Legrand’s customary sibylline vocals, add up to something welcome and unprecedented in the Beach House catalogue — their best album in an already impressive set. The life of leisure has always been filled with harsher shadows: by reflecting on their existence, Legrand and Scally have created their truest, most uneasy vision yet.