Premature Evaluation: Beach House Depression Cherry
Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things. — Schopenhauer
There’s a bloom in the dark. It’s the way grief makes everything sharp. It’s the way loss is built into everything we wish was eternal. The pleasure we take in the very tragic, especially when it happens to us. Life assumes an odd logic during its most jagged points; there’s something familiar — almost welcome — in the turmoil. Beach House’s music has always pinpointed that marvelous sadness. Their fifth album is also their saddest to date. Wounded, weighty dream-pop for the loss of loss itself, for the gray calm after the nightmare. The most common criticism lobbed at Beach House is that they’re boring. But really, it’s just easier to say a Beach House record is boring than it is to engage with it, because to engage with it requires one to engage with a whole scope of grief, romantic or otherwise. Depression Cherry is the color of grief. You have to give a lot to this album. You have to open yourself up to be carried off. Like every Beach House album, it demands your past. If you’re not willing to give it, you’ll feel nothing. If you are, you’ll nearly drown.
“This album is about love, pain, getting older, dealing with loss, letting go,” said Beach House frontwoman Victoria Legrand in an interview. “It’s really whatever the listener will feel in response to it.” It’s an album that, if it hits you at the right moment, will overwhelm you. If you aren’t in that place, and are oblivious to and skeptical of Depression Cherry, that’s all right with me. And it’s probably all right with Beach House. The size or scope of their audience has never seemed to be of great concern to Legrand and her bandmate, Alex Scally. A few years ago, when Volkswagen wanted to license their music for a commercial, Beach House calmly declined. It was an opportunity most slow-growing indie bands would’ve jumped at. Beach House not only passed; they fought adamantly against the knock-off song the company opted to use instead. Their music comes unequivocally on their own terms.
Legrand, especially, is hesitant to talk about or describe her band’s songs. She seems to view music solely in a mystical sense, speaking of it in blatantly spiritual terms: “It’s one of the most versatile, powerful art forms, because it’s how people figure out why they’re existing, and helps people to believe in something.” To that end, Beach House records are consistently eternal, ephemeral, just as our mythologies are. These songs are more prayers or incantations than anything else, vessels to carry our own belief. They are weighted with whatever meaning we bestow upon them. This is music small and particular enough to capture one’s own personal stories — “Beyond Love” feels pulled from one of my own lovesick memories. But that’s only a trick of the light; the songs are as massive as they are opaque. They can reflect back anyone and everyone’s past. They function like recurring legends or the collective unconscious.
If you are at a jagged point, Depression Cherry will feel like a welcome companion; some albums only make sense when you’re in pain. To that end, it is not so much a grower as a record that will lay dormant and emerge one day when you feel grief boiling bright-hot under your skin. It’s an album about the trap of time — that we’ve lost the past, that we’re bound to the present, that the future soldiers toward us, relentless, even if we don’t want it. Beach House are still here, still relevant, because they came to us when this millennium was young. A decade ago, unearthed analog instruments were quaint and welcome remnants of our non-digital past. Twee and emo — two of the most sincere movements in indie music — reigned supreme. Into that moment stepped Scally and Legrand, giving us dream-pop for the new era, our own shoegaze-mystics, bright enough to outstrip Mazzy Star, Galaxie 500, and the Cocteau Twins. They’ve come to represent what dream-pop means, fashioning a sound after themselves instead of the other way around.
Even the most cynical Beach House observer knows exactly what the band sounds like; they might claim all the songs sound the same, but they know the sound. Weeping spirals of guitar, the futility of life looped in eerie, wordless harmonies, organs, and “shooting star slide guitars” blasting like lightning bolts, beckoned and sent away by Legrand’s androgynous, languid voice. Maybe Legrand writes the lyrics, but Scully senses them, he translates them into softly cooing organ lines, demanding siren burst of guitar, the loss lingering everywhere in soft white noise.
All that sorcery is here, again, in full force. The centerpiece of the album is the electrically charged “Sparks,” the closest thing to boundary expansion on the album. A string of chopped and quartered whispers crackle the song’s chanting backbone, but they’re not enough to overpower a discordant, unsettling blast of organ. It looms atop the song, insistent and slightly off, like a nagging doubt in a new love. “And then it’s dark again/ Just like a spark,” goes the chorus, a flickering thesis for the entire album. “10:37″ sounds most like Bloom or Teen Dream, with gloomy, militant percussion keeping time with the clock’s crawl toward loneliness. Mostly wordless, the song hinges on a single, sighing thought: “10:37/ Chances are like night/ You’ll disappear.” “Space Song” sweeps with the lovely lilt of a romance beginning, spiked with icy, peaking Casio. Then, the coda picks back up, repeats and repeats “Fall back into place,” but Legrand pronounces it like this: “Fall/ back/ into /place.” Each start forward is a step back.
Depression Cherry is music to grieve with, music to grieve to. “The universe is riding off with you,” Legrand laments on the elegiac album closer “Days Of Candy,” but she won’t give chase. “I would not ever try to capture you,” she promises on “Bluebird.” She is hands free, palms to the sky, even as she pines. Too often our love is grasping, closed fists. We think we deserve so much, we demand and assume it will last, leaving us more empty-handed than we were before. You choose a moment — a song, a person, a feeling — because you want it to become special. The moment or the person isn’t special; it’s the desire, the act of choice, that fixes it inexplicably in your mind. “When the train comes I will hold you/ ‘Cause you blow my mind,” Legrand breathes on “Levitation” as the record starts; a moment of full-fledged wonder erupting in the midst of the most tedious commute.
Eventually, grief passes, loss fades, time heals all. But you lose something, even when you heal. You lose the blood-red throb of your pain. Acceptance is yet another form of grief, and inevitability is the ethos for this album. Some critics and fans argue Beach House should be charting new territory, pushing themselves somewhere wild and unknown. Instead, they’re more familiar than ever. And we too are inevitably the same. Our griefs manifest themselves as predictably as heartbeats. This is also why the album succeeds, if you let it. It accurately mirrors our tiny sufferings, our raging against the machine, our hopes that we will change, as those hopes dwindle into final, peaceful acceptance of who we are.
All the motifs of this band — vacations, devotions, teen dreams, blooms — are tied to cycles and moods, seasons and beliefs. They are all centered on the mad possibility of escape. We believe that door in the back of the wardrobe exists, even though our searching adult hands find only boards. Beach House capture the feeling that makes us look up into the corner for that man with the spiderweb of lights on “Beyond Love.” It’s the feeling that makes us whip around in the dark, wish on stars, and feverishly read our horoscope. We’re looking for clues that a divine force loves us, cares, will guide us. Maybe our grief is a clue, too, a gift.
Depression Cherry is out 8/28 via Sub Pop. Get it here.