The ten year anniversary of Beach House’s debut record is initially surprising but also, upon reflection, right on time.
With six albums behind them, each with its own self-contained world, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally are a world and road-tested duo and veterans of the festival circuit while still remaining a somewhat undiscovered country themselves. Hailing from Baltimore—with its eclectic music scene refusing all pigeonholes—they luckily force us to contend with their back catalog on its own terms rather than the terms of a distinct scene or movement. Returning to their first album is not just rewarding in its own right but a reminder of how much they have managed to change while also staying true to what has always set them apart.
A relatively common criticism of Beach House is that their music “all sounds the same.” If this is a mistake, it is at least an understandable one. Beach House have had the good luck of attracting many music enthusiasts through the internet. But internet-based musicophilia is so overwhelming that it is convenient, and can even seem necessary, to understand an artist in terms of two or three salient characteristics. Beach House, for example, might be labeled “dream pop” for having a female vocalist, a fondness for melancholic tones, and spaciously suggestive instrumentation even when the reverb is turned all the way down. Fair enough. But such labels paper over how much the group has changed and the variety of sonic spaces they have explored with a slow, unpretentious naturalism.
Legrand’s vocals have gone from the Nico-like baritone of this first record to progressively incorporating stronger, Janis Joplin-esque bursts on later ones. Their two albums from 2015 see her continuing to evolve, with a new emphasis on falsettos which alternately mock and comfort. While Depression Cherry has a womb-like intimacy that is somehow also energetic and grandiose, Thank Your Lucky Stars harbors a gritty, guitar-centric punk aggression which is more Stooges than Cocteau Twins. In terms of instrumentation, where 2008’s Devotion sounds dense, aquatic, and populated, the clear sounds of 2012’s Bloom conjure up vast, cosmic, archetypal shapes. Compared to any of these, their 2006 debut album is their most brooding but ramshackle, their most innocent but morgue-like, their most tactile but distant.
A worthwhile account of the overlooked range which is contained within Beach House’s deceptive consistency would require another piece and another occasion. But this range is necessary to keep in mind before considering their debut, which is striking from the vantage point of 2016 for its strong foretaste of what was to come.
The superficial consistency of Beach House’s sound is perhaps overly remarked upon. Yet what has been acknowledged but little explored is the strength evident in the deep-level consistency of their themes, motifs, and natural songcrafting abilities. The goal should not just be to see Beach House more in terms of difference than consistency, but to account for their consistency with more attentiveness than has been the norm.
The opening track, “Saltwater,” is evidently the first track the duo ever composed. In the past year it has seemingly gained a special place in their live performances. In addition to the installation shows—which allowed the group to revisit earlier, softer songs which wouldn’t always translate to the bigger venues—they occasionally opened club shows with this track which, for them, still seems to inspire nostalgia.
“Saltwater”‘s aural components would seem to justify the tendency to see the band’s music as essentially dreamy, with its wafting waves of lo-fi distortion and its diamond like, vision-shimmering keyboards. But this is a deceptively simple slice of noise pop. The all-encompassing wrap of the sound offers both warm comfort and mangled uncertainty. The lyrics shift between classically simple images and sentiments (“love you all the time,” “swimming in the saltwater”) and those which complicate their purity (“even though you’re not mine,” “little thing and a broken wing”). Ending the track with the instruments cutting out as she sings the final line “you couldn’t lose me / if you tried,” the band is already exploring their perennial obsessions with paradox and duality. It’s an appropriate entry point into a discography that (if it could be said to really be “about” anything) has consistently shown how love is both bigger, more wonderful, more various, and more hopelessly, messily complicated than one would have ever thought.
Another standout is “Childhood,” which introduces the perennial Beach House binary concerns of innocence and experience. The memorable refrain of “All… my… toys… are… DEAD!” has the straightforward, gothic nursery rhyme simplicity of the best Robert Smith lines, and Victoria delivers it with a poppy subtlety which indicates both unqualified melancholy and the complicated irreverence of a precocious adolescent. Not just the lyrical content, but also the song’s instrumentation and its place in the record’s sequencing open up a world of feelings, themes, and styles which the band would continue to revisit. In particular, the song anticipates “Used to Be,” which begins with a similarly frank riff on the keys. While that song, which marked the band’s transition from Devotion to Teen Dream, is an anthem of wide eyes and roads traveled, “Childhood” explores more local and domestic forms of mixed feeling in the face of change. Like Depression Cherry‘s magisterial closing track, “Days of Candy,” which brought these concerns beyond travel and locality into a new register of the cosmically bittersweet, Victoria emphasizes remembered images and objects of simplicity to evoke all the complex, conflicted emotions which occur when we see time riding away with us.
The track which has gone on to have the most impact is undoubtedly “Master of None,” somewhat famously sampled in The Weeknd’s pity-party club anthem “The Party & The After Party.” With its stark but sensually timed drum sounds, it’s undoubtedly the track which contains and inspires the most movement. The last song recorded for this record, it’s the first entry in a long line of Beach House songs which have managed to be groovy and vaguely danceable without sacrificing their distinctively immersive, atmospheric vibes.
“Master of None” is always an opportunity for suggestive banter from Victoria Legrand during live performances. The most recent tours have seen her consistently leading into it with a shout out to the ladies in the audience. Take, for instance, their performance at this year’s Primavera Sound festival where she seemed to frame the track as a kind of feminist anthem.
When “Master of None” is performed with songs from Thank Your Lucky Stars, one can see the recent emphasis on the punk side of femininity which has laid dormant in the group’s songs from the beginning. Especially when played in close proximity with “Silver Soul,” the song draws attention to how Beach House have always had the capacity not just to dream, but to rock.
But “Master of None” has significance even beyond its strength as a crowd-pleasing, politically charged sex anthem. It’ s also a good test case for considering the attitude Beach House have taken to reconciling the difference between the intentional feelings they powerfully charge their songs with and the subjective freedom they insist on encouraging in their listeners. In interviews, both members display a reluctance to pin down the meaning of their music with a principled commitment to mystery worthy of David Lynch (with Legrand in particular on record as a great admirer). Starting with Teen Dream, the band began releasing their albums with the complete, official lyrics, going so far to design rabbit-hole-esque lyric websites to accompany both of their 2015 releases. But on their first two albums, not every song was included on the official lyric sheet, and “Master of None” is no doubt the most conspicuous absence among these.
Legrand, however, seems to relish the ambiguity: “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.” Building a strong relationship with a misheard Beach House lyric is rewarding, but the official lyrics don’t necessarily threaten this: the moment of discovering that you are “wrong” is actually a liberation, as it allows you to see your own unconscious hopes.
But with “Master of None,” Legrand goes a step further into meaning’s relational possibilities, in live performances of the song obviously mixing and matching lines into and out of earlier and later verses, effectively throwing into question the concept of an “official” version. Whether she can’t remember the lyrics or she’s acting on the same principles of subjectivity which under-gird the Gysin-Burroughs cut-up technique, the effect is the same: Beach House’s natural but attentive approach to meaning-making gives an otherworldly quality to their work which goes deeper than the more obviously noticeably aspects of the instrumental atmospheres and into how the lyrical elements work their power.
Holding my copy of the album, I reflect on how Beach House have consistently tried to encourage a fan response which asks us not to forget the special possibilities of bonding with specific musical objects. Teen Dream’s inclusion of a bonus DVD was meant to expand the visual associations of their music. Bloom’s luxurious packaging cries out for complete and concentrated listens. The websites for Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars encourage us to be co-participants in making our own associations for the songs. That I own this first album in lowly CD form seems somehow appropriate to it. This is a band that formed in 2004, with Scally and Legrand allegedly bonding over the casual recitation of corny 1990s hits in a casual jam session.
Its artwork, inside and out, is more sharply photographic than later albums and embraces the clashing, mystical-thrift-shop aesthetics of a Myspace page. It shares with Bloom a self-consciously anachronistic use of the tacked-on “hidden track,” a staple of the CD era which the birth of this group bookends. Now veteran members of the vinyl renaissance, Beach House have consistently taken care to emphasize and exploit the materiality of how their music is presented, a lesson in how the immediacy of something’s form can take great care at the surface level without also being superficial.
Returning to their first offering on its tenth birthday is a great way to begin revisiting a body of work which stands as a shining example of how to be an artist thoroughly in your era, but beyond it rather than of it.