Songs for sleep are among the most difficult to make. Ambient is the easiest to doze off to, but some dreams are best cushioned by pop music, the kind that’s so recognizable and well-worn that it practically lives in your subconscious. Like a lullaby someone sang you when you were young, the type of song designed to arrest your mind and put you under. For years, Beach House have given us that music. Theirs is a dreamy kind of pop, music that sounds as if it could soundtrack the surreal and twisted fantasies we enact while we’re most unaware. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s songs teeter on the periphery between the conscious and the unconscious, suggesting that there is liminality between the two and value in exploring that interplay.
Beach House’s new album, 7, will not be relegated to the realm of sleep. Its opener, “Dark Spring,” explodes from the outset and it fades out to a siren. It’s both beautiful and jarring, suggesting a clear point of departure. For 13 years, Beach House have proven themselves to be one of the most consistent bands going. Each album they release is incrementally more adventurous than the last, but they’ve never undergone a total reinvention. In our interview, Legrand said that in creating this work, the band sought to use “bigger canvases, a stronger solid line,” and sonically, it is their boldest album to date. Recorded with their live drummer James Barone along with Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom), rhythm is the epicenter of these songs. It’s a noticeable shift from their last full-length, Thank Your Lucky Stars, which relied on a static drum machine, one that didn’t really waver from song to song. The dynamism of a live drummer nudges the looming darkness in Legrand’s lyrics to the forefront, and it creates an air of spontaneity that Beach House have flirted with but never seized in quite the same way.
A press release written by Legrand and Scally says that 7 explores glamour and its underbelly, but a simpler way to process this album is by invoking its cover: black and white, darkness and light. Beach House don’t usually operate in extremes, but they relish the polarity when they do. Lead single “Lemon Glow” replaces the band’s typical bed of drones with a cartoonish, springy beat. Legrand’s accompanying vocals are, as always, calm and measured, lending stability to a song that literally bounces as Scally’s guitars slice through like shrapnel. On 7’s concluding track, “Last Ride,” Legrand puts this dichotomy to words: “Sun came up/ Baby went black.” That song is all delicate piano and tambourines, the Velvet Underground-indebted haze eventually overtaken by a pitchy drone.
Beach House don’t generally tell stories, they paint moods. However, I would be remiss to not call attention to Legrand’s lyricism on 7, as it is some of her most evocative. She sings the way she always has — drawing out syllables as if there’s all of the time in the world to hit the punchline — but 7 hints at an underlying narrative. Disembodied features surface every now and then as if to engage the listener in a game of “exquisite corpse”; a pair of eyes, a smile, braided hair, a falling tear. All of these clues hint at the outline of a figure that you can’t quite make out. On “L’Inconnue,” Legrand chants in French and names feminine archetypes, singing in a round with herself so as to lend a childlike playfulness to a song that interrogates society’s expectations of women — the whore, the ingénue, the holy angelic surface — only to be swallowed by a drum fill.
On the album’s centerpiece, “Drunk In LA,” Legrand puts words to a unique and often unreplicable feeling: that of fading youth. “Memory’s a sacred meat that’s drying all the time/ On a hillside I remember I am loving losing life,” she sings. On this song, Legrand embodies one of the shadowy women who occupy this album, and though it isn’t exactly autobiographical, Legrand herself is aging in an industry that prizes youth, especially in women, above all else. The disheveled star she embodies on “Drunk In LA” prefers the corners of “dark and dead end rooms,” evoking a seedy, hostile version of the City Of Angels. It’s the ideal setting for a film noir.
The especially cinematic moments on 7 succeed because they remind you of something you’ve heard before. Early single “Dive” features a staticky synth that replicates an organ player in an old-timey picture show. “Woo” glides on a swelling ’80s synth that could easily slip into Cliff Martinez’s Drive soundtrack; it’s serene, a sugar rush of a song that doesn’t even try to mask Sonic Boom’s influence on its soundscape. The burbling xylophone that opens “Black Car” gives way to Legrand reciting lyrics like incantations: “We want to go/ Inside the cold/ It’s like a tomb/ But it’s something to hold.” Eventually, Legrand abandons words completely, repeating a staccato “ha, ha, ha” while a heavy drumbeat shrinks to that of an erratic heart palpitation. It’s a sinister song, the kind that you might decide to skip if it came on late at night while you’re home alone.
Atmosphere exists with ease and nuance on 7, allowing the listener to access emotions that sift below the surface without making themselves known in any obvious way. That is the inherent value in every Beach House album, and while some rely heavily on certain emotions — Depression Cherry being the most obvious — 7 is less intuitive. There is one song on this album that sounds like the Beach House we have always known. It’s called “Pay No Mind” and it’s a love song, or at least, a song that purports to be a love song. “Baby at night when I look at you/ Nothing in this world keeps me confused/ All it takes, look in your eyes,” the chorus goes. By the time it ends, though, something shifts. A moment of bliss is overtaken by an unspecified bleakness that creeps in like fog. “Pay No Mind” is delightfully ambiguous, the kind of song that will mean different things to different people. As long as Beach House are still writing songs that make you wonder, they will always be familiar.
7 is out 5/11 on Sub Pop. Pre-order it here.
UPDATE: Here’s the full stream.