Artist: Beach House
Label: Sub Pop
Beach House have always been about the creation and execution of a specific atmosphere and mood. That’s why so many critics, myself included, have such a hard time keeping the phrase “dream pop” out of reviews for their albums. It’s not that it isn’t accurate, or even appropriate, but it’s somewhat limiting and can pin them into a creative loop which could be misconstrued as artistic malaise. And nothing could be further from the truth, as Bloom represents a confident stride forward for the band while still being undeniably Beach House. Wading among all the shimmering guitars, synths, and echo-laden vocals rests an album of meticulous melodies and exacting songwriting. To say that it is the best and most confident album that Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand have released to date, even when compared to 2010’s magnificent Teen Dream, would be an understatement. We’re halfway through the year and Bloom is easily a forerunner for the title of best album of the year.
They’ve managed to build on what made their previous albums so interesting and refine it to a point where it shimmers and shines like evaporating dew on a Spring morning. And as is characteristic of this kind of beautiful, gossamer dream pop, the songs have an ethereal texture and ghostly presence that makes them immediately captivating and memorable. Much of this detail comes from the spectral voice of Legrand who manages to turn even the most casual lyric into something potent and arresting. It takes a great talent and effort to have a line like “Make us suffer, like no other/Is nothing like lapis lazuli” and make it seem as though everything depended on it being sung right this moment. But these songs have that kind of determination and each song here strikes the right balance between the veiled dream-like pop of artists such as Kate Bush or Cocteau Twins and the structured, not-so-dissimilar, music of The Jesus and Mary Chain or Ride. What comes across so strikingly on Bloom is its compounding use of these influences, without being overwhelmed by them. And in this genre, with the possibility of so much sonic overlay, this ability to stand out among the crowd makes Beach House that rare band which manages to successfully fuse their influences into a singular and unique musical vision.
The opening track on Bloom, “Myth”, has been circulating around for months now and even after all this time and exposure, it still has a restlessness and intensity that hasn’t diminished. From the simple clanging percussion to the slender synths that surround Legrand’s emotionally charged vocals, the song perfectly captures that point where the insubstantial meets the tangible. It seems so fragile that it could be broken by the slightest push but there is also a strength that seems to come from within, a force that is struggling to get out and assert itself. This contrast between the weak and the strong emotional presence of the music plays out across Bloom in surprising and creative ways. Follow-up track “Wild” continues this use of synths and reverbed vocals to maintain a very specific mood, that of a precarious balance between the gentle and the forceful. This culminates in a catharsis of sorts toward the end as the straining guitars wrap themselves determinedly around Legrand’s vocals. It feels as though the effort expended over these two tracks has finally allowed the lurking presence in the first song to break free and that sense of freedom spills across the rest of the album. Second single “Lazuli” manages to turn its rather cryptic lyrics into a purely emotional punch to the chest that leaves you gasping and anxious to hear it again. This sense of momentum that develops over the first few tracks continues to spur the listener on; we’re caught in the eddy as it pulls us further in. Sounds begin to pass in a blur as each track builds on the success of its predecessor.
Later songs like “Wishes”, with its persistent chamber-pop beat and dream-like vocals, and “On The Sea”, a piano-led wisp of a song that nevertheless feels substantial in a way that defies expectations, continue this creative progression, this sense of artistic movement. This album has been nothing if not carefully shaped to lead the listener exactly where Beach House want us to be. And on album closer “Irene” (I’m not including the bonus song tacked onto the end of this track because Irene stands perfectly well as the deserved end to Bloom), the first thing we hear sounds very much like waves and then it fades away to allow a simple shuffling beat to back Legrand’s vocals as they come gliding in across the oncoming synths and guitars. The song embraces the need for change while also maintaining a very specific sound. Beach House know what they are doing. And “Irene” is their parting gift to us. Hell, the whole record is their gift to us.
If it could ever be said that two people are a perfect fit musically, then Beach House represent the pinnacle of that sentiment. Rather than fight it out over the course of the album, Legrand’s calmly persuasive vocals and each song’s instrumentation fit together like a precision clock, each piece complimenting the other in way that gradually builds itself up so that the end result is an album of such startling clarity and beauty that we’re left to wonder what else these two people could hope to accomplish on any subsequent albums.
Bloom may not be a complete overhaul of what we’ve come to expect from Beach House but it is a precise refinement that demands even more attention than their previous efforts. At this point in their career, they don’t need an overhaul. Scally and Legrand know exactly what it is they do, and they do it well. If anything, Bloom cements their ability to confound our expectations while also adhering close to what we think we want from the band. During the course of this record, they give the listener all the requisite reference points that help us connect the lineage from their debut to Bloom. While those first records were fairly successful attempts by the duo to reconcile their love for all things indie rock and dreamy, atmospheric Liz Fraser-inspired slow burns, Bloom can be seen as the culmination of all their years of experience and effort. It’s proof that progression can be made within what most consider a narrow field of music. You don’t have to break new ground sonically to stand out in a crowded genre. You just have to put your fucking heart into it, similar to what Perfume Genius accomplished on Put Your Back N 2 It earlier this year. Beach House have shattered all boundaries and preconceived notions of what music can and should be. Do you prefer the dream (pop) or reality? With Bloom, I’m content to stay in the dream.
written by Joshua Pickard