Since the release of their self-titled debut in 2006, Baltimore duo Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have been an unlikely success story. Nothing about Beach House’s early albums or performances indicated the wide appeal that their music would end up finding. The songwriting was mercurial, introspective, and emotionally complex. But with Teen Dream and Bloom, the pair’s third and fourth albums, Beach House rose to their burgeoning popularity. Legrand’s vocals lifted, crafting melodies and arrangements that reached the back of the large theaters they now filled with a live band to back up their shows.
In the process, Beach House came to define the dream pop genre. Few now would have difficulty putting a finger on the sound to which that phrase refers. Maybe most interesting is that Beach House’s dreaminess never incorporated nightmares into the fold, that dream pop as a whole tends to ignore the terrors that can also find us when we sleep.
The title of Beach House’s fifth album, Depression Cherry, indicates a darkening of tone, with the band defining the concept as “a color, a place, a feeling, an energy … that describes the place you arrive as you move through the endlessly varied trips of existence.” Here, the band recedes from the scope that they had built so successfully on Bloom. Legrand’s vocals drop down in the mix. Songs don’t quite hold the same cathartic peaks. “Endlessly varied trips of existence” are less distinguishable from each other.
It’s an album that’s less dream than trance. Its early songs soar but ultimately feel like a red herring when taken with the rest of the album. “Levitation” opens with a calm Legrand peering out from a peaceful expanse with warmth and delicacy. “I’ll go anywhere you want to/ You should see, there’s a place I want to take you,” she announces; the effect is comfort, the song’s slow build playing second fiddle to the perfection that the band finds in tone. On its own, it’s a magnificent song, one of their very best to date. It’s followed by the album’s lead single, “Sparks”, which is the biggest departure the band takes on the album. Incorporating shoegaze, ambient noise, and harsher guitar tones than the band is known for, it’s almost unrecognizable as a Beach House song.
The strength of these two tracks might be what makes the rest of the album so disappointing. The remaining seven songs have intriguing moments, but rarely enough to separate an entire track from the pack. Interestingly, the band readily admits that this album is about getting back to their comfort zone, as their previous albums found them pushing the limits of what they originally intended the project to be. The problem here is that ambition is villainized, when in reality getting out of their comfort zone is exactly what has allowed Beach House to surpass their bedroom pop beginnings and exceed anyone’s expectations. In returning to the familiar, Depression Cherry feels uninspired.
On “Wildflower”, in which Legrand shines with her rhythmic vocal cadence, the singer is possibly self-referencing when she sings, “You make something of it/ The sky and what’s left above it/ The way you want nothing of it.” With this in mind, it’s hard not to be empathetic to a band’s readiness to retreat from the spotlight, even if Depression Cherry is weaker for it. Still, there’s beauty throughout the album. Scally joins “Beyond Love” early on with evocative guitar fills, but he doesn’t stick around to the song’s conclusion, and his presence is sorely missed as it chugs along. Likewise, “10:37” doesn’t have much for Scally to do at all; its middle comprises empty space that begs to be filled.
Beach House included a series of quotes along with the press release for Depression Cherry, illuminating the album’s themes. “Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things,” reads one from philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The quote could be about love, death, or material possessions when taken out of context. Applied to Depression Cherry, it can speak about the band’s refusal to continue on their path, illuminating not just the new album’s lacking, but also how special Devotion, Teen Dream, and Bloom are. Maybe the best thing about dreams are the surprises we find there, that there is risk involved for it all to turn bad without much notice. Depression Cherry lacks these stakes, and the result is a dream that’s hard to remember once you’re outside of it.
Essential Tracks: “Levitation”, “Sparks”, and “Wildflower”