Teen Dream Turns 10
“I’d like to imagine people would listen to the album really loud. Or on headphones so it’s like there’s no space left anywhere in your ears.” That’s not really an exacting demand on the part of Victoria Legrand, but that’s what she wanted from those who listened to Beach House’s third album, Teen Dream, when it came out 10 years ago this weekend.
It might not seem like much, but that was a pretty radical expectation based on the kind of music that the Baltimore duo had been making up until that point. Their first two albums, 2006’s self-titled and 2008’s Devotion, were quietly reverential, hushed hymns that sounded magnetically taut and magically simple. Those first two albums were wonderfully small, but there’s nothing small about Teen Dream. It’s meant to be listened to loud. Indeed, it leaves no space anywhere in your ears.
After touring behind Devotion in increasingly bigger rooms, Beach House wanted to make music that would fill even bigger spaces. “Devotion was very much still-sounding and difficult to convey to an audience,” Scally said at the time. “It really drove us toward something different, almost wanting to take these songs as we play them live and make them surge and pulse more.” Legrand added: “You play a song night after night and you just start to reach further. It’s natural, you know? The artist wants to go further.”
Legrand joked about a hypothetical listener’s immediate reaction to Teen Dream in that same interview: “This isn’t the Beach House that I put my headphones on and fall asleep to and think about girls in floral dresses!” They wanted to dispel the notion that Beach House music was meant for sleeping. And despite jokes about how every Beach House song sounds the same, it’s remarkable how dynamic all of these songs actually feel a decade on. Teen Dream is pretty perfect, the start of a new era of Beach House that would find them reaching higher and higher.
Beach House weren’t shy about their ambition. They wanted to reach that next level. They signed to Sub Pop, who gave them the budget to commission music videos for each of Teen Dream’s 10 tracks, which were included on a DVD that came with the album. They wanted to expand the Beach House universe, show that it wasn’t all waterlogged lo-fi drums and ethereal vocals and, well, girls in floral dresses.
The duo poured everything they had into making the album. They recorded it in a converted church in upstate New York. (“There was nothing churchy about it, though,” Alex Scally insisted. “More like a barn.”) They hired an outside producer for the first time, Chris Coady, who would go on to produce the band’s next three albums. They utilized the same tools that they had been working with before — most of the instruments they played on Devotion, they used here again — but they made all those tools sound bigger, better, brighter and more transcendent.
Each song is a masterful puzzle, huge swaths of texture and sound that are so that dense they become minimal. They largely ditched the reverb that was so prevalent in their previous albums, and created the same cascading, cacophonous effect with cleaner instrumentation. There are a lot of moving parts to each song but they never overwhelm. These songs glide along steadily, swell so easily that you can’t even hear it happening. Take “10 Mile Stereo,” one of the album’s most cinematic tracks, which rises up out of nothing and comes to dominate the entire landscape. All of the album’s singles, “Zebra” and “Norway” and “Used To Be,” engage in a similar sweep, simply constructed until the instruments intertwine with each other so effectively that nothing else exists.
Scally mentioned the Jimmy Ruffin song “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” as a major inspiration for the sound of the album. He showed it to Coady to demonstrate what Beach House were aiming for, that feeling of wanting to dance but not being able to because of a sadness that’s holding you back. “It’s kind of a crazy feeling of you don’t want to stand still,” Scally said. “And he’s saying the saddest things, but it’s almost triumphant. It’s like a really confusing feeling where you feel sad, you feel happy, you feel ruined…”
Beach House capture all of those emotions and more on Teen Dream. The album’s title implies a naive fantasy that’s already lost. The duo spoke of a “dark passion” that serves as the undercurrent for the album, a sensuality that never finds an adequate object of affection. Legrand’s lyrics are desperate and longing, her intonations powerfully mournful. She really comes into her own as a vocalist on Teen Dream, hovers over every song like a weary specter. “Don’t I know you better than the rest?” she asks on the opening track, a romantic sentiment on its surface that’s twisted into a barb: “All deception/ From you.” Not so romantic after all.
A lot of these songs sound grand and majestic on the surface but betray a darker heart. They are eulogies for love, songs about never knowing where that love will take us next. “Feel it moving through our skin/ It’s a sickness, infinite quickness,” she sings on “Silver Soul.” “It is happening again,” she sighs, resigning herself to setting herself up for the same disappointment. “Walk In The Park” chimes with the happiness of leaving someone behind: “In a matter of time/ It will slip from my mind/ In and out of my life/ You would slip from my mind/ In a matter of time,” Legrand sings on it, like if she insists on that easy slip enough it’ll actually come true.
“When you’re a kid you want to be an astronaut but by the time you become a teenager you just realize that you are lost in space,” Legrand said in yet another interview. “You’re in love with yourself but you don’t even know it since you still have a nursery ego. And then you realize you’ll not know yourself for 15 more years. I’m just getting to understand myself at 28.”
The album’s pair of closing tracks, “Real Love” and “Take Care,” are two of the band’s best, both pushed forward by soul-scraping pianos and guitars and two remorseful dedications. “Real love/ It finds you/ Somewhere with your back to it,” goes the former. And on the closer: “I’d take care of you/ If you asked me to/ In a year or two,” she sings, delayed because the timing is never right.
With Teen Dream, Beach House became a touchstone for melancholic nostalgia. Their songs have such a marvelous, effortless sweep. But they were never as dreamy as they were made out to be; a lot of Beach House songs are closer to nightmares, like walking down endless hallways searching for an answer that doesn’t exist. They’d refine the formula they established on Teen Dream throughout the rest of their career, find new ways to define love by tragedy.
A couple years after Teen Dream was released, Beach House made headlines because of a copycat song that appeared in a British Volkswagen advertisement. The ad agency had commissioned a flagrant soundalike of this album’s closing track, “Take Care,” after Beach House had turned them down repeatedly. The band were, understandably, upset. “The worst thing is that it feels like something close to what we made,” Scally said in an interview with The New York Times. “A feeling and a sentiment and an energy has been copied and is being used to sell something we didn’t want to sell.”
But it’s difficult to even approximate the feeling of a Beach House song, much less recreate it. There’s a reason the band has held up so well over all these years, and why all their songs feel like they’re chasing the same inexplicable feeling. What they do is inimitable. Teen Dream doesn’t ask too much of the listener: Just turn it up loud and drown everything else out with it, and it’ll be enough.