Thursday, August 27, 2015

album review: 'depression cherry' by beach house

I've got a complicated relationship with Beach House. Hell, it's the same sort of complicated relationship I have with most dream pop that indulges in airy, hazy production, half-heard lyrics, and focuses much more on vibe and feel than driving groove or melody. It's not that I dislike it - hell, I'd argue Beach House hasn't made a bad album, and Teen Dream and Bloom would easily be in the running for the best of their respective years - but for me it's music for a specific time and place. A big part of Beach House's appeal is the relaxed slow burn, and to be very honest, there aren't many moments when I can appreciate that mood as much as I'd like because of my schedule.

But I reckon it runs a little deeper than that. I revisited all of Beach House's albums prior to this review, and while there was a progression that enhanced the band's melodic sensibility, I've never been all that enamoured with their songwriting beyond it. And even as they cleared away more reverb with album after album and expanded their instrumentation and mix to build more momentum, I started wondering where the band's progression would lead. Because let's face it, Beach House can cultivate a very intimate atmosphere with their material, and even though their material can repeat itself in lyrics and composition, push it too far without clear creative direction and you can run into losing what made your duo special.

And some of the mixed reviews I had seen going into this album prepared me for the worst, suggesting that the band had returned to their quieter roots but along the way had lost some of the thick but gentle atmosphere that made their music so enticing. And as someone who has never really fallen completely for Beach House, I was genuinely curious how it was all going to pan out, so what did we get?

Well, that's a tricky question... mostly because for the many, many times I listened through this album, I think I understand what Beach House were trying to pull off... and it raises almost nothing in me whatsoever. Where Bloom took Beach House's sound into heavier, more expansive heights, Depression Cherry steps back into the clearest and yet most spacey sounds the duo has ever explored... and yet I can't help but feel like it's a regression, both sonically and in terms off their writing. I can see why fans would like this and I do recognize the quality of the composition, but this did very little for me as a whole.

So let's ask the question why, and the biggest place to start would be the instrumentation and production. Now Beach House does not do dramatic changes in sound, so tonally this record doesn't step out of their comfort zone: languid with clean, bright liquid guitars, fluttering melodies, and keyboards that span weedy organs to shimmering synthesizers, all with a gentle brightness without a single rough edge. That last piece is intentional - according to the duo itself, they purposely recorded the album aiming to completely eradicate any high-end crispness, and it shows from the sandy cymbal sounds to the heavier electric tones that sizzle but never spark. Now this does lend the record cohesion, but it also highlights the major shift in percussion: namely the return to syncopated and thin drum machine patterns over live drums, which is then further muffled to provide only the barest trace of groove. As expected, this completely flies in the face of any momentum this album might build, but it's not inherently bad: Beach House are always more interested in cultivating mood and atmosphere anyway. The problem is that they've also chosen to peel away much of the film of reverb around the entire mix that pulled all of the instrumentation together, which significantly weakens the atmosphere and highlights sounds that could have probably used that blurring effect. The choppy fragments on 'Sparks', the chintzy stabs at a futuristic sound on 'Space Song', the filmy synths on 'Wildflower', and especially that drone lurking through the back of 'Bluebird', these are pieces that could have worked with the edges blended a little better, analogous to the organs on 'PPP' or the gorgeous multi-tracked swell on 'Days Of Candy' and '10:37'. 

And on that note, there was a pretty significant change in the vocals too. Victoria Legrand again brings a lived-in presence to her willowy tones, but her choice to opt for more of her higher register strikes me as a questionable one. She still sounds good and when they bring in a richer choral backdrop it's even better, but when meshed with the subject matter of these tracks, it rubs me a bit the wrong way, almost with a tone that she knows the outcome before it'll happen which can ring as a bit condescending at points. 

But of course, that's tied into the lyrics and themes - which if you've seen any of Beach House's interviews, they're famously impenetrable about explaining. The band has shunned terms like abstract or oblique to describe their writing, and I'd actually agree here: instead, they opt for a sort of direct universality, avoiding great details in order to use simple language that can transcend any number of situations. And with the admission right of the gate that this sort of songwriting doesn't exactly resonate with me - it plays too broad for my tastes and at its worst can scream of pretentiousness - there is thematic consistency across this album, which for once is aptly summed up in the title of the album. A moment of sweetness, of flavour, but a small moment, and one that ultimately can feel token in the face of an unknown, uncaring world. This is a record about little moments of beauty: sparks of feeling and inspiration to be cherished, bluebirds to be marvelled at, sweet candy to enjoy, wide-eyed innocence on a girl's face, a house made of dawn representing a structure of light and hope... that is really only an illusion. All of these bright moments will fade and thus should be savoured while they're here, but the inevitability of their absence is palpable.

And oh, do Beach House know it and want the audience to know they know it too, and this is where I find the emotional resonance of this record rings hollow for me. If this was a record simply remarking on little pleasures or capturing the melancholy only brightened by a few candles we struggle to keep lit, I could probably appreciate more of these songs. But the mood is less melancholic and more of a knowing certainty of that coming darkness. Take 'PPP' for instance, a song about the coming permanence of marriage and yet the character Legrand plays is more content to trace that infinity symbol in the ice until she cuts through. Or take 'Beyond Love', where she would rather ignore romantic notions of the guy who avoids heartbreak and the maturity that comes with it and instead posits his love as a net that'll ensnare his lover. And sure, there's a maturity here I can respect, but that knowledge of inevitability leads to inactivity and stasis - after all, if it's going away, why really savour and appreciate it with any urgency when the loss will ring all the harder? Or to put it another way, you know that saying, 'it's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all'? Beach House might appreciate that love from a distance, but they won't engage themselves, not without the spectre of it all going wrong... and bizarrely, not using that spectre to add urgency or drama to these songs. 

In other words, I can't help but feel distant from this album... but to some extent, I think Beach House does too. I get keeping a consistent tone, which Beach House has refined exceedingly well here, and I get their assertions that repetition can lead to transcendent moments, but I don't really like the taste of their transcendence on this record, which isn't as atmospheric to ignore the lyrics that are really a fair bit darker than the duo plays them. I'm not going to deny that the formula still mostly works here, which is why this is getting a light 6/10 from me... but if you're not a Beach House fan, I find this hard to recommend. Otherwise, eh, it's worth a listen, but Beach House has done better.

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