Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Beach House Once Twice Melody

Sub Pop/Bella Union/Mistletone
Sub Pop/Bella Union/Mistletone

It’s wild to think that Once Twice Melody is Beach House’s eighth album. Loving Beach House is not unlike having a soulmate-level relationship: You feel as if you’ve known them forever — and like you’ve only just met. That is how fresh every new Beach House album sounds. Considering how long they’ve been around — Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally founded Beach House in Baltimore in 2004 and released their self-titled debut album two years later — their longevity and consistency are practically unheard of. While the majority of their ’00s indie-rock cohorts have split up (only to reunite for a nostalgia tour paycheck), become millennial TikTok memes, or, like their Wham City peers Future Islands, released one commercially obsessed-over album that they have since struggled to replicate, Legrand and Scally are living up to the hype every damn time. They know what they’re good at and they constantly find ways to fine-tune their trademark dream-pop so that no one album sounds quite like the one that came before. Except it also does, and it feels like coming home.

Now, if the Once Twice Melody album cycle feels like it’s been going for quite some time, that’s because it has. Beach House initially announced the 18-track album back in November of last year, noting that they would release it in four separate chapters, with the final piece arriving this week. It’s the first album Legrand and Scally produced entirely by themselves, and they brought in a live string ensemble to create an expansive, cinematic atmosphere. Speaking to Apple Music about this album’s inspirations, Scally stressed a Reagan-era influence, saying: “I think that we are deeply inspired by the kind of overblown, super dramatic style that music can have that I feel was really popular in the ‘80s, maybe with like hair metal, or like Prince had it a lot. It almost felt gaudy, but it was so intense and powerful. And I think that we were just kind of, not musically, but just energetically really kind of channeling some of that world.”

While every Beach House stands apart as its own unique journey, there is a noticeable arc to their nearly 20-year career. In the beginning, on their first album and its 2008 follow-up, Devotion, Legrand and Scally were mostly experimenting, testing out their echoing synth melodies and Legrand’s velvety vocals. At first, they drew the expected comparisons to ‘80s and ‘90s dream-poppers Opal, Cocteau Twins, and Mazzy Star. When I first saw Beach House in 2009, at a Baltimore-born Round Robin showcase at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge, I remember thinking that Legrand and Scally were captivating performers — but their songs came out like puffs of vapor, without much structure to hold them together. When Beach House released their immaculate 2010 project Teen Dream, though, that all changed — the duo had achieved a framework for their ideas, like someone had turned a fuzzy camera lens to focus.

In terms of pop magnetism, Teen Dream was really hard to top. But Beach House did just that, and then some, on its 2012 follow-up Bloom, which turned the dial up just a smidge, clarifying the duo’s production and heightening their penchant for lush, romantic melodies and Legrand’s hesitant vocal sighs. Every album since then — 2015’s Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars and 2018’s 7 — has shifted the sonic kaleidoscope, though the duo’s formula of gossamer synths and hypnotic arrangements has been unchanging. Perhaps the most they’ve deviated from form has been on the dark, #MeToo-minded 7, which I’ve always likened a bit in my mind to Danish space-rockers Mew.

It has now been approximately four years since Beach House released 7, marking the longest time between albums since the start of their career. And to that end, Once Twice Melody is so robust, it feels like the band has been holding their breath, only to exhale a symphony of sound that feels like a best-of Beach House collection, except every song is brand new.

Beginning the writing process pre-lockdown, Legrand and Scally used the pandemic as an excuse to spend more time ideating their next move. The result leans harder into fantasy than ever before, which the band has stated on the record is a perfectly responsible way to deal with reality. By becoming totally subsumed in their art (when they do give interviews, Beach House tend to talk about being led by whatever feels natural in the moment), the band has birthed an album so epic, it totally makes sense to release it in chapters. It’s kind of like how Big Thief just released a ton of singles from their double album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You prior to its release. A venture this layered needs to be digested in small bites.

Yet Once Twice Melody does not overwhelm. Legrand and Scally start out on a grand scale, imbuing the title track with strings and sweeping bah-dah-dah-dahs, like a gauzier Neil Diamond. Follow-up “Superstar” shimmers with looping synths that escalate in intensity as they move up the scale. Scally’s aforementioned ‘80s influence comes in early too, with the ominous “Pink Funeral” setting a mood that would sit well in a fantastical horror movie, perhaps one set in space. The lyrics, too, suggest wonderment curdling into something awful: “Once was a fairytale/ Then it all went to hell/ Swans on a starry lake/ Hearts that were made to break/ Tears through a white lace veil.” Meanwhile, the drum machine-driven, noir-pop “Masquerade” conjures images of Los Angeles at night, much like the Drive soundtrack. Slow-burning ballad “Another Go Around,” showcasing Legrand’s icy alto, offers the same mystical quality, only I could see it accompanying a film’s denouement.

As for the songs the public has not yet heard — “Finale,” “The Bells,” “Hurts To Love,” “Many Nights,” and “Modern Love Stories” — they roll out as though Beach House are fully aware that This Is The End. For all of Legrand and Scally’s well-documented tendency to just go where their impulses take them, the final chapter of Once Twice Melody feels very intentional in its finality. “Finale” ponders the futility of memory, kind of like that scene in Six Feet Under where Nate says to Claire, “You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.” Later, twanging dream-folk ballad “The Bells” considers a relationship tested by distance, and on the organ-led “Hurts To Love,” Beach House look inward at a painful romance (“If it hurts to love you, should I walk away?”).

On Once Twice Melody, the world is once again refracted through Beach House’s singular vision. By featuring a range of sounds, textures, and rhythms, it also illustrates their unique understanding of how to go hard and then pull back, never letting the album feel lopsided. This has been a long-running talent of Legrand and Scally’s: As they came up in the 2000s, the pair refined their instantly recognizable sonic aesthetic, but as they became more famous and started filling arenas (notably their thunderstorm-affected outdoor show at Central Park’s 5,000-capacity Rumsey Playfield in 2012), they figured out a comfortable way to scale back their operation and just do what feels comfortable. As Scally told NME: “We naturally step away from things that don’t feel right to us. After that [show], we went against super-large venues. We did a whole cycle where we barely played above 1,500 people, even if it meant we had to play four shows in a city.”

By trusting themselves and each other, Beach House have maintained a remarkable career that is exceedingly rare by industry standards. In an increasingly unstable world, it’s a relief to escape into theirs.

Once Twice Melody is out 2/18 on Sub Pop.

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