Beach House are, mostly, well-understood by now. We expect them to craft heavenly dream pop that’s less noisy than classic shoegaze but not as sparsely bleak as all-time mopers like Red House Painters. As they’ve proved before on songs like ‘Myth’ and ‘Lazuli,’ they represent another in a long and distinguished line of bands who make melancholy majestic. There will always be room for artists like this, in whose hands nothing can sound too uninviting.
But Depression Cherry, the group’s new album, shifts their style in not insignificant ways. They’ve decided to pull everything back, to reduce the noise, clutter, and drama; and the new approach feels perfect. This album doesn’t aim for full-on catharsis, but rather the kind of elegiac chilliness that awakens your most profound thoughts.
This is music designed to be heard while lying on your bed, watching the snow fall outside your window at night. They capture the sentimentality of cold landscapes even better than before, so much so that this might be the most appropriate representation of wintry music I’ve ever heard—and I’ve heard a lot, and kind of can’t believe I’m saying that. Soothing but not flimsy, nostalgic but modern, this album has the remarkable ability to make you give yourself over to it. Few records are so good at compelling you to shut up, drop everything, and just listen. In an age of distractions and multi-tasking, it feels awe-inspiring. Everything else recedes from consciousness under its power. If I’d heard this album during the dark days of my senior year of high school, I might have never left my bed.
Guitars glide effortlessly along the smooth frozen lakes of tracks like ‘PPP’ and ‘Beyond Love.’ Synths dance around the edges, more than anything amplifying the empty space in between the instruments—one of the key differences compared to previous BH works. For example, on engrossing opener ‘Levitation,’ the icy sounds echo against emptiness, to disquieting effect; when lead singer Victoria Legrand says she wants to take us “where the unknown will surround you,” we implicitly accept.
[pullquote]Soothing but not flimsy, nostalgic but modern, this album has the remarkable ability to make you give yourself over to it. Few records are so good at compelling you to shut up, drop everything, and just listen. Everything else recedes from consciousness under its power.[/pullquote]
There’s an offbeat poignancy to her ruminations on loss, love, and the passage of time: “The universe is riding off with you” sounds like the most depressing reflection of a lost past. For example, ‘Beyond Love’ sounds fairly poppy and accessible, but she gives it added romanticism and danger right from the beginning, declaring, “The first thing I’m gonna do before I get into your house / I’m gonna tear off all the petals from the rose that’s in your mouth.”
Mostly, Beach House are just introducing ideas and images and letting you project from there. This laconism can feel like a limitation; they ask you to fill in a lot of detail, and you just want them to guide you a little further. But their reticence is simultaneously essential for the music to convey what it does. The lyrics have to remain vague enough to keep the participants in the songs as abstractions. Too much specificity would break the spell and take you out of your own thoughts, back to reality.
Beach House have now released five albums, but they broke out with their last two before this, 2010’s Teen Dream and 2012’s (superior) Bloom. But they didn’t love the places those works took them; an essay introducing this album explained that the amplified drama of their last records “naturally drove us towards a louder, more aggressive place: a place further from our natural tendencies.”
They were right: by trying to make the best music ever for falling asleep, they’ve zeroed in on their biggest strengths. The pop leanings of the aforementioned albums often didn’t suit them. (Quick examples: there’s no rhythm or mood to tracks like ‘Norway’ or ‘Used to Be,’ and Legrand’s vocals are too often conventional and forgettable.) They succeed by slowing down, becoming more unassuming, teasing; hypnotic Beach House is the best Beach House. With the exception of Bloom’s ‘Myth,’ these are the best and most representative songs they’ve ever written; I already associate them with this album above all, and it’s only been out a month.
Shoegaze icons Slowdive are always referenced as a BH inspiration, and indeed, the icy synths and funereal tempos here recall Just for a Day especially. Likewise, the vocals on the spectacular “Wildflower” immediately call to mind Rachel Goswell, lead singer of both Slowdive and dream pop masters Mojave 3.
Elsewhere, the glittering sparkles and rubbery guitar lines on this album suggest a classic of the genre, The Cure’s ‘Plainsong.’ And you can even hear the Joy Division effect in some of these haunting, spacious dirges. They lack Ian Curtis’s whipped-up drama, of course, but they embody his ability to slow everything down and erase everything except what truly matters.
Depression Cherry doesn’t have the all-encompassing power of a Joy Division album, or other genre landmarks such as Disintegration or Souvlaki. It’s all too calculated, albeit in an intentional way. You can tell they pored over every inch, fine-tuning each synthesizer, drum machine, and backing vocal for maximum impact. Sometimes, being so mannered can torpedo a work, but maybe they just know they can get away with it because it all sounds so pretty.
There may not be a ‘Vapour Trail’ here, but the album is greater than the sum of its parts. When listened to in its entirely, the minor nuisances—those cheesy electronic beeps on ‘Space Song,’ ‘Bluebird’s weak melody—wash away, and all that are left are the feelings it stirred up within you.
It’s after midnight when the album starts, the sun is coming up when it finishes, and that period of blissful reflection, like so much of life, feels too fleeting to ever grab hold of. “Just like that, it’s gone,” Legrand whispers on exquisite closer ‘Days of Candy,’ as the crying guitars and shadowy synths evoke a ghostly apparition fading from sight. Ultimately, Depression Cherry is one giant, and beautiful, afterimage. It’s always a little further away than you think. Songs end earlier than you expect, choruses fail to return, and those themes linger just out of reach, the whole experience reminiscent of a half-remembered dream that still makes you shiver. But, luckily, these dreams can be replayed, over and over again, until you finally drift away to sleep.