Wednesday, May 16, 2018

album review: '7' by beach house

So I'll admit the last time I talked about Beach House three years ago - the first time I ever had on my channel - it didn't precisely go well. Part of that was inescapable - while I do love Teen Dream and Bloom I appreciate those records most because they expand and heighten the mantra-like dreamy melodies at the core of the duo's sound, compensating for poetic and well-considered but occasionally underweight lyrics. But on the flipside you get records like Depression Cherry which served to strip away so much of that atmosphere where it became much harder to get lost in the mist, and elements that could prove playfully eccentric on one record could feel undercooked or even pretentious when stripped of their packaging. It was hard to ignore the feeling that both Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars in 2015 felt like a regression, albeit for different reasons - I didn't formally review Thank Your Lucky Stars, so here goes: I appreciate the return of more atmosphere and more layered production, but the melodies and songwriting felt even more threadbare and like a retread of past records. Not bad, but not exactly a project I'd revisit over their best work.

So I can't tell you how excited I was to cover 7, Beach House's newest record and one that buzz was suggesting was their most dark and experimental in some time. Departing from longtime producer Chris Coady, Beach House acknowledged that when they worked with an outside producer at all it was Peter Kember, known for his work with Spacemen 3, MGMT and Panda Bear as well as for electronic records under the alias Sonic Boom. And while I expected Beach House to continue with their typical sound - this is not a band that takes dramatic sonic risks - I did hope that they were heading towards the heavier direction pushed on Bloom, which I'd probably consider my favourite of their projects to date. So alright, what did I find on 7?

Okay, first the good news: 7 is absolutely the return to form that Beach House needed, and will probably sit among their pantheon of truly great records along with Teen Dream and Bloom - yes, it is that good. But what makes it that good is a little tougher to quantify, because this is the first Beach House record in some time to actively stray from the formula that's made them an act with such a recognizable tone and sound - perhaps not as heavy as Bloom but definitely the album that takes the most chances in terms of arrangement and tone, most of which surrounds a defined lyrical arc that shows a duo with a penchant for stasis finally taking real steps, all the more conscious of distance but where the yearning is going to propel them over the gulf. 

And we have to start with the instrumentation and production, where the first changes are most immediately noticeable. I've talked before about how Beach House has always had some degree of cushion in their misty swells of reverb, even on the moments with the greatest swell and presence, and I've also mentioned how when they lost some of it on Depression Cherry it left a project that could feel oddly barren and lacking in the same dynamics. Well 7 also doesn't have quite the same cushion, but the tonal balance and sense of dynamics is far better handled this time - synthesizers are allowed to ebb and interweave within the mix with noisier guitar phrases amidst a backdrop that has the faint low-end crackle of something ethereal or extraterrestrial. The duo has noted these tones are the most recognizable contributions from Sonic Boom and they're absolutely a welcome addition, balancing the intimate vocal pickup from Victoria Legrand with enough multitracking to accentuate her presence in a mix that feels much more expansive, but still rounded on the edges because this is a Beach House record. Now admittedly this is where a part of me would love the tremolo picking of 'Dark Spring' or what might just be a solo on 'Drunk In LA' to take center stage and really explode, but Beach House is more interesting in coaxing the subtler emotional moments that something that immediate, and if you're paying attention to those deeper strains of melody they can be just as powerful. Of course, the choice to embrace such dynamics means that there will be elements that feel more dissonant than they should - the oddly springy synth choice on 'Lemon Glow' might have been intentionally sour but it was definitely a low point, and the muffled oiliness of the keyboards on 'Black Car' curdle into an odd swell that I almost wish felt a tad darker - but the larger issue does come in the percussion choices - and yes, I get that drum machines have always been at the foundation of Beach House tunes, but especially when juxtaposed against deeper live drums that match the larger mix, they just do not have the same presence like on 'L'Inconnue'.

But on the flip side, what has changed the most is the compositional style, notable for Beach House in their traditional method of layering melodic phrases feels much looser now, which leads to crescendos and transitions that feel more naturalistic or even surprising. Even if I'm not crazy about some of those thin grinding layers on the back half of 'Dark Spring', the transition across spacey tones towards the main guitar line on 'Pay No Mind' is absolutely masterful. Then you have the gothic a capella of 'L'Inconnue' building off the vocal round - and props to Legrand for making the smart choice in anchoring most of her vocal lines in her lower register, definitely a correction from Depression Cherry I appreciate - but this ties into a shift in the vocal arrangement that deserves attention. We'll get into more of this in lyrics, but the multi-tracking specifically creates a call-and-response across Legrand's vocal line, and not only does it feel distinct, in serving the larger metaphors of distance it provides excellent balance to the romantic tones across most of this record. And indeed there is a classical romantic sentiment I get for songs like 'Drunk In LA' with its wells of guitar or how each layer of gleaming synth and buzzing guitar builds around 'Lose Your Smile', or how the drum kicks hard into the melodic phrases driving 'Dive', carrying a similar sense of relief with every distant whoop behind 'Woo'. But the most pronounced examples are on the final two tracks, from the elegant whirs of synth playing off the gleaming high tones of 'Girl Of The Year' with its subtle contrast between distant noisy percussion and the keyboards, to especially 'Last Ride', as the main guitar phrase picks up more tempo and layers racing forward - truly a stunning moment that almost reminded me of the best moments from a War On Drugs record, and that's high praise indeed.

But it's the content that deserves a lot of scrutiny here, and Beach House has described the two interweaving themes of the record: the myriad expectations and double edges of femininity; and how beauty and light is created from wellsprings of great trauma and darkness. And the symbolic element that weaves them together is twofold: distance and duality, a polar spectrum of balance that might be as vast as the cosmos of space described on 'Dark Spring' to something that might feel just as vast like the slow decay of a relationship on 'Pay No Mind' - it's no surprise one transitions into the other and carries the same resolute weight. Now Beach House has always mined the subtleties of balance for tension and swell before, but what makes 7 so potent is how willing they are to bridge that vast gap, or at least raise the question of what did. 'L'Inconnue' is a fascinating example, a woman in the 1800s found dead in the Seine, likely of suicide, but a smile was on her face, one so beautiful it compelled the man at the morgue to take a plaster cast of it, highlighting both the mystery of her smile but also how a moment of pure effervescent joy and love can span even beyond death. It's one reason why the false balance and tension of 'Lemon Glow' shows how the center cannot hold and why the song feels so offkilter, as does the uncertain moment beyond time on 'Black Car' - you can't just separate yourself from the balance altogether, humanity craves that necessary step. And yet so often the weight of holding that balance has fallen on women and a quiet feminine acceptance of balancing ambiguity, leading to much of the back-and-forth vocal arrangements where exuberant beauty tries to reach indelible sadness to reconcile each other, find a vestige of peace, most observed on 'Dive' and 'Woo', both showing those willing to disrupt that balance to find real love - possibly just on shadows or illusions but worth chasing anyway. And that's why despite the tragedy at the core of 'Drunk In LA', the old starlet alone at a bar trying to cling to faded memories of old glory, there's a yearning sense of peace, and it's analogous to 'Girl Of The Year' and 'Last Ride', where society values the beauty but cares nothing for the strained truth of its juxtaposition against deeper wells of sadness or even abrupt endings. Both these songs reference classic beauties of the Warhol era - Edie Sedgwick and Nico respectively - and it's truly stunning how well Beach House captures the high drama of their lives in abstract language in a way Lana Del Rey will kill to achieve. All of these show a stark contrast between sparks of vibrancy against tides of darkness, and yet while that distance may seem implacable - reinforced internally or externally, by one's fears or societal constraints - those who can breach that gulf can find real peace.

In short, this is the sort of thematically rich and varied project from Beach House shows exactly how much the band is capable of when they test the limits of their formula - they may have held or accentuated balanced poise before, but breaking it leads to something far more intriguing and potent, and I'm thrilled how much the band was willing to challenge it. It's not a perfect release - some of the synth and guitar tones don't quite mesh as well as they could, and I still think Beach House could have cut loose even further and I'd have been entirely on-board - but as it is this is a great record, netting an 8/10 from me and absolutely a recommendation. I'm not sure it's better than Bloom, but it's certainly close - definitely worth your time, definitely check this out!

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