Somewhere Tonight: a Beach House Retrospective in Six Dreams

Beach House“One thing Victoria and I can agree on is that our music is its own world. And, I think that’s very much what the ‘beach house’ feel is: going off to a different world. It’s not really a vacation; vacation for me is when you go away, but you’re still thinking about all the things you’ve left behind.”

- Alex Scally

Dream I: Auburn and Ivory

Victoria likes to sleep during the day, so that she dreams in warm colours; so that she wakes up at 4pm; so that the sweet sepia afterglow of the bonfires and apple orchards that scatter ashes and seeds through the scenery of her mind's eye are briefly unanimous with the afternoon sun. Some days there are no pictures, just a particular warmth, or the scent of woodsmoke married with bourbon.

Today there is a ringing sound.

It calls out across the bonfire, and maybe it is the bonfire; every pitch slide and timbre feels like an auburn spark set to an starry night's ivory flashes, flaring up as brightly as the echoes left behind it signal a darkness. It's swirling round and round, there's a fever to it now, and as the warm specks flicker up and fail, there's another sound; a low, churning sound, like the mechanical waltz of a child's music box. And suddenly it is a waltz, and suddenly the fire and the stars are flickering in unison, and they're calling it a song.

Dream II: A Kingdom, Half Mine

It's 2008, and Baltimore's musical alumni are about to become the toast of the indie oddball world. Next year will see Animal Collective drop the universally adored Merriweather Post Pavilion, while Dan Deacon's Bromst proves to be a breakthrough LP of his own. Victoria Legrand will even contribute backing vocals for "Two Weeks", the lead single from Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest. Everything is just about to come up Baltimore, and sure enough, Beach House will have their time in the sun, too. But it's 2008. None of that's happened yet.

Instead, we have Devotion.

Musically, it's of a piece with their eponymous debut, though the borders of their sound have become marginally less fuzzy. Certain tracks even begin to tower, betraying a new-found fondness for chamber pop's sonic cathedrals. Beach House had highlights, such as “Master of None”, but nothing that felt like a single in quite the same way that “Gila” or “Chamber of Hearts” immediately stand out.

The allure of this era lies in these records' woozy, intimate quality. Both albums have a late-summer feel, woven through by a spool of amber thread, or else late afternoon; at any rate, there's the sense that something bright is giving way to shadows. Legrand's voice is still a little slurred, like she's leaning across you at a party, telling a story in aphorisms and exaggerated winks.

But of course, there's two of them. "At no point during Beach House's 35 minutes does it ever sound like the work of more than two people," Pitchfork wrote in 2006, and that remained true for a while. The drum machine beats are cheap and tinny, as if to drive the point home, and the organ provides the rest of the rhythm section, too. Alex Scally's guitar provides the bulk of the decoration, covering the tracks in glittering, crystalline arpeggios. It's a quiet, sacred time. They could probably keep making albums like this forever. They don't, though.

Dream III: With Our Legs On the Edge and Our Feet on the Horizon

Beaches themselves are a common dream landscape, but there are different kinds of beaches: there is Zagreb, there is Sardinia, there is Paignton. After the hazy glow of both Beach House and Devotion, 2010's Teen Dream is almost dazzlingly bright. “Zebra” opens the record in much the same vein as before, but then the whole thing suddenly lifts up like a kite caught on the breeze, cymbals rising with it – live drums! - and it's still dreamy, for sure, but it's transformed into one of those evanescent scenes where you're flying, or falling in love, or arriving at some labyrinthine castle that seems to contain the sum of all your stupid desires.

Timing was pretty good, too. Even beyond the Baltimore scene (which was largely ex-pats anyway), there was Owen Pallett, Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, Joanna Newsom, all of whom were releasing their most grandiose, maximalist work around this time. Next to those artists' work, though, Teen Dream was sweet, almost radio-friendly. For all its emotional ballast (“Silver Soul” is still the most beautifully world-weary song ever), you suspect Victoria and Alex could have done a Moby if they'd chosen to, forging an easy life from licensing royalties for the rest of their days. They certainly weren't short of offers: after asking the band to use “Take Care” several times, one car company decided to just straight up copy one of the songs for a UK advert anyway. The band weren't impressed: “A feeling and a sentiment and an energy has been copied and is being used to sell something we didn't want to sell,” Scally later told The New York Times.

If there are stories that don't match the songs, are the narratives fixed? Or can we write new ones? Victoria doesn't really mind. “Even when I see people have written some of my lyrics and they’re wrong, I’m never angry. I always just think, 'Well, that’s what they wanted to hear I bet.' Because I think we hear what we want to hear.”

Dream IV: All I Wanted Comes in Colours

The sound continues to swell, and then Bloom drops, and we're at peak Beach House; not necessarily in terms of quality (though it is a spectacular record), but in sheer, cinematic scale. It's a consciously widescreen affair, and if previous records' cover art mirrored the synaesthetic qualities of the music itself, then Bloom's is no different: this is a dark, evening record. “Myth” opens the album in every sense, and it is breathtakingly epic, recalling Cocteau Twins at the very peak of their majesty - “Donimo” perhaps, or “Aikea-Guinea”. And it never lets up.

Colours are important here, as always. The word 'blue' is mentioned twice, and there are songs called “Lazuli” (as in lapis lazuli, the semi-precious blue stone) and “On the Sea”. It's more of a violet-black sound to me, but we're certainly working in cooler shades.

Best of all is the short film they make to accompany the album. Forever Still is an outstanding piece of visual art on several fronts, and certainly meets their stated aim of taking ownership of their own session footage. But what I love most about it – what they got so, so right – is the way the light changes across the duration of the film, from the last light of the day to the first of a new one. Please remember to leave your curtains open when listening to Beach House.

Dream V: After Midnight We Could Feel It All

By the time 2015 arrives, the world has run out of colours that Victoria and Alex can sing about, so they invent a new one. When Depression Cherry is released, I listen to the whole thing at least twice a day for the first month afterwards. The band bill DC as a return to their roots, and while that's far from true in terms of the music, it certainly feels a world away from the icy sheen of Bloom. More than anything that came before it, the album feels like an actual place, a pristine psychogeography carefully plotted to produce the greatest amount of well-being in a human person. I've been in love, though I don't meditate, and I've yet to explore ASMR; but I'm pretty sure that “Levitation” simulates the experience of all three at the same time.

Because they can, they release another career-high album three months later that year. Thank Your Lucky Stars isn't shiny or fuzzy: the production is notably stripped right back, the songs are darker, and it's generally a little spikier round the edges. “Elegy to the Void” is particularly devastating, and appropriately titled, as Victoria beautifully sings the words “again, and again, and again” into an electronic abyss. (Not for the first time, you get the impression that Twin Peaks was in the back of their minds as they recorded it – like “Silver Soul” before, it seems like a reference to a line from the cult show that precipitates chaos: “It's happening again.”) “Rough Song” is a real storytelling number, dotted with abrasive lines about “another vodka cocktail party." And then the last song plays.

Dream VI: Red and Blue

The thing about alternate realities – other worlds, other times, other dimensions – is that people treat the whole concept like it's science fiction. If I use the word 'magic' too much, it's because I believe in the ability of good art to transport ordinary people to worlds outside their bedroom, or their problems, or their country, and I don't know what other word to use. It's blind alchemy. The words 'somewhere' and 'tonight' are enough to generate a rush of blood. I don't believe there's a duality, a red pill vs. blue pill existence. I think the human experience is such that the worlds of fantasy and reality are actually pretty tenuous, overlapping even, and that's how we're able to invent both clocks and stories.

So the girl closes her eyes, and if she's tapping her heels together it's only because there are so many places like home, and fuck Kansas. Somewhere there's a better place. She's dreaming her way there, night by night, spilling drinks across marble archways and crystal chandeliers, smiling at strangers, running her hands along the balcony, walking down the steps and into the arms of whoever catches her first, still an auburn spark in an ivory dress.

And when she opens her eyes, the ballroom is lit up like Christmas, and her eyes light up like a ballroom.

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One Response to “Somewhere Tonight: a Beach House Retrospective in Six Dreams”

  1. CJ 31/05/2016 at 7:24 pm #

    Beautifully written. A+ 🙂

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