Devotion Turns 10
Devotion opens with a greeting. Not the “hello” that Victoria Legrand utters 20 seconds in, but the swath of sound that comes right before it. That scrabbling, a brushstroke in the sand, immediately grounds Devotion in a particular headspace. There’s a lot to be said for the opening notes of an album, and Beach House have never failed at setting a scene: Think the swirling strums of “Zebra,” Depression Cherry’s crash into consciousness, even their debut’s lamentable pitter-patter. For a band that places so much emphasis on mood, the first few seconds will always be important. In the beginning, Devotion is wistful and wanting, and Beach House spend the rest of the album exploring the immutable depth of desire.
Coming off their self-titled 2006 debut, Devotion, which came out 10 years ago today, felt like a marked leap for the Baltimore duo at the time, one that was maybe overshadowed a bit by the mainstream crossover they would go on to achieve later in their career. But Devotion remains one of Beach House’s finest creations. Its chintzy drums and salt-stained beats and warped keyboards feel more insular and less epic than what Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand would go on to construct. It feels, oddly, more achievable, or at least it seems like you can see the moving parts at work, where on their successive albums — Teen Dream and Bloom, especially — their chemistry feels more exacting and refined.
Here, Beach House are still a little rough around the edges. It actually reminds me most of Thank Your Lucky Stars, the band’s most recent album, in that, removed from the weight of expectations, they allow themselves to lower the stakes a little. There’s no sweeping grandiosity here, no striving for perfection; Devotion is concerned with beauty on a smaller scale, in the more intimate moments. You can hear them searching for the right words, attempting to hit on that precise sound.
They hadn’t yet built up the repertoire of tricks that would carry them through later albums. The instruments here are mostly simple, unadorned; the compositions sleepy yet gorgeous. The biggest advancement is the addition of live percussion, a departure from their debut. Legrand’s voice often gets swallowed up by the beast of Beach House, turned into another instrument in a much larger tapestry, but on Devotion her vocals are often the only element holding each song together, the centrifugal force around which everything else exists. It makes the album feel more narrative. “I’ve been blessed with a kingdom, half mine,” Legrand wails on “Gila,” and you get the sense that Devotion strives to embody what that ideal world would look like. Devotion is the sound of balmy summer nights and sticky days, the settling down and taking account after a long exertion.
It’s also the sound of a band still figuring everything out, and there’s comfort in the imperfection. “The only way I can even sum it up is innocence,” Scally said in an interview for the liner notes of the forthcoming 10th anniversary edition of the album. “There are errors all over it. But it somehow works, because of that irrational belief you have in yourself at a certain point in your life. I hear that in a lot of people’s early records. This bizarre confidence that is unfounded, but it keeps the thing alive.”
There’s another thread of unfounded confidence that winds itself through the album: the headstrong conviction of young love. Devotion finds Legrand thinking about what it means to be with someone for the rest of your life. It opens on a portrait of matrimonial dedication, the “Wedding Bell” chiming out not like a celebration but a burden. It’s maudlin, putting a ring on something that might be fated to fade out forever, attempting to provide texture to an ephemeral feeling. “I tried to stay alive, in our beds, in our heads,” she sings. “Oh, but your wish is my command/ Is your heart still mine to sail?”
That’s imagery that recurs throughout Devotion. A lot is left to faith, to hope. Multiple times Legrand places herself on a shoreline or in the middle of a body of water, awaiting distant dreams that might never come true. On “Turtle Island”: “By the dock of the pond/ Turtle Island/ I will wait for you there, creeping silently/ I can’t keep you…” On “D.A.R.L.I.N.G.”: “In this harbor of a room/ You’ll find your anchor soon/ In the parting of our ways/ May it never happen anyway.” The final lines of the album echo this symbolism, too: “Constant home of my devotion/ Must be you, the door to open/ Home again, be here, be here with me/ Will I swim out on your ocean?” There’s a general sense of spirituality, whether through ghosts or a more ecclesiastical holiness. An apparition appears to her: “You came to me in my dreams and you spoke of everything/ Of sweet remedies and diamond rings/ Holy worlds dig early beds,” invoking an early grave.
It feels like, deep down, Legrand knows the fallacy of her devotion, but is trying her hardest not to acknowledge it. So Devotion is filled with these kinds of conflicted love songs, sentiments that would sound almost sweet if they weren’t surrounded by such dark, weary music. “Would you be the one to carry me?” Legrand asks on “Heart Of Chambers.” “I’d like to be someone you could finally learn to love again.” Each song feels magnetically taut, contrasting an inner turmoil that balances out Legrand’s desire to settle down. On “Heart Of Chambers,” the drums are plodding and funereal, the guitars mournful and tightly-knotted, the organ recalls a dim religiosity. “In our beds, we’re the lucky ones/ Fill us with the sun,” Legrand repeats at the end of the song, but what should be a joyous image comes across muddy. It’s followed by their lovely cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last A Long Time,” whose title acts as a grim emphasis that only some things last, not all things.
Thankfully, though, the one thing that seems to last is Beach House. And they don’t seem to be going anywhere, at least not for a long time. The creative partnership that solidified on Devotion is still going strong today, with a new album due out later this year. Perhaps the takeaway from Devotion isn’t yearning over relationships that cannot be or will not last, but rather a pursuit of what makes you most fulfilled, like, say, maintaining a band that seems to reach new heights with each album. Desire is not inherently bad or good, but what you desire and who for and for what reasons are important. Devotion kicked off the legacy of one of the most consistently excellent rock bands of the decade, and that requires dedication.