Album Review: Beach House—“Depression Cherry” & “Thank Your Lucky Stars”

By Jamil Fiorino-Habib

When a band as prolific as Beach House surprises their fans with two albums within almost two months of each other, surely there must be some grand motivation behind their artistic scheme. Even still, I’m trying to figure out what these albums mean in the grander scheme of their discography. While these albums still share in Beach House’s distinctive carnivalesque sound, it seems that most of the light whimsy that was developed between Teen Dream and Bloom has quickly spiralled away. These albums are coming from a place of fatalistic self-reflexivity, as the band is becoming increasingly aware of the hardships and melancholy of growth and endurance.

Depression Cherry begins with the promise of a journey, as our ears are lifted away by the iconically airy Beach House keyboard synths. It gives the feeling that you’re being charged up with layers of sonic energy to be propelled even further. Many songs in the album have that beautifully pronounced sense of movement, which helps steady the pace. However, the ethereal build of “Levitation” should have led straight into “Space Song”. Instead, the initial sentiment is ruined by the jarring noisiness of “Sparks” which sounds out of place in Depression Cherry–a case of “one of these kids is not like the other.”

Album art for Depression Cherry

Album art for Depression Cherry

To me, “Space Song” is a soaring achievement, and one of the top tracks that should be taken away from these two albums. I always look for the sensation of an album, where an album transports me when I close my eyes. To me, that’s the most affective thing a good piece of music can do. Maybe I have a personal bias from my experience with this piece, but it did exactly what it promised; it took me to space. “Space Song” is a prime example of how musicality and lyricism can merge to create powerful effects. I remember listening to this song while riding my bike at midnight under a canopy of trees elated by pure freedom. I felt like Steven Spielberg could have sent my bike flying in the air and I wouldn’t even think twice. “Space Song”’s gorgeously whirling melody never solidifies on any specific note and wavers around, leaving you hanging on in the best possible way.

The album always maintains a balance in its sounds. Heavy and light (bitter and sweet) are always in precise proportion to each other. Elongated, drawn out bass lines and brittle guitar work, like in “Beyond Love”, subtly drags and swirls the ear along juxtaposing registers. As in every Beach House album, their special ability to create beautiful melodies is what makes them so talented. So too, the drumming in Depression Cherry is skillfully crafted across the board. The drums are less booming than previous albums, and are used sparingly, which makes their addition in songs so much more impactful. They always ensure they never tip that balance.

The journey concludes, albeit a bit too soon with the lucid reverie of “Days of Candy”. Even Victoria Legrand makes sure you are aware “it comes too soon”. The track takes on a sacred quality from the chorus of voices, encapsulating the listener as if they were in a grand cathedral. By now we have arrived at a destination of transcendental spiritual clarity. It truly is a wonderful end to the album, and has one of the most distinctive intros of any Beach House song. I love the sound of the shattering cymbals near the end of the piece, evoking the image of the cathedral’s crystalline stained glass breaking apart, as the song slowly crumbles and dissolves away. “Just like that, it’s gone”.

But not gone for very long. You might want to Thank Your Lucky Stars they surprised us with another album so quickly. Beach House made themselves clear, this isn’t a sequel to Depression Cherry, it isn’t a B-sides collection –it makes its own mark in their discography. Even the pattern of minimalist album art that characterized the last three albums was suddenly changed to a black and white photograph of a young girl and her doll who looks strangely like a young version of Legrand. Visually, musically and even from a business standpoint, this album is an obvious departure from the others. If they were trying to experiment with a different sound, why not just launch it right at us, without even giving us time to question.

Album art for Thank Your Lucky Stars

Album art for Thank Your Lucky Stars

The album is definitely an experiment–they’re drifting into new tonal scales and playing around with more dissonance, but some songs verge on out of tune. As well, Legrand, who often relies on many filters to give her voice that otherworldly tone, struggles with tune. Even with so many filters, the singing falls flat and raspy at points, you can tell that she’s tired. After having put out six albums, two of them within two months of each other, she has every reason to feel a bit worn out, at a loss for musical words, and the self-awareness of this fact in Thank Your Lucky Stars seems to be deeply embraced.

Perhaps this is a turning point, a total reinvention, perhaps just an experiment, only time will tell. By album number six, Beach House is getting older, they’re growing up, just like the rest of us, and right now they’re definitely in their angsty phase. Thank Your Lucky Stars embraces a subdued, intoxicated, harsher sound, at times verging more on downtempo dream punk than dream pop, but always identifiably Beach House. The problem with having such a distinctive style is that you often fall back into old formulas, as they did with “Common Girl” which shares the same opening as Bloom’s “On the Sea”. Maybe they did realize they were copying the riff and were trying to make a connection there, but I just can’t see it. There’s a struggle in producing consistently quality recognizable music that doesn’t completely fall in on itself.

Though not all the pieces are destined to be legendary, I don’t think that was the band’s intention. Of course, they have undoubtedly nestled in at least a couple gems. “Rough Song” is a refreshing addition to the album that toyed around with a different sound pallet from the other tracks. It brings me to that familiar state of lucid contentment that their songs so often do without feeling formulaic. The most notable track of the album though, “One Thing”, embodies the broken spirit that characterizes the album so well. It’s a piece that makes me want to turn my speakers up to 11 and roll my head around till it falls off my neck. Between the grit of the opening guitar and that repetitive strum that seems to last forever, this song screams its “rah-rah-rah” right at you–in a way that makes aggression beautiful. Where “One Thing” truly shines is in the guitar solo outro. Hearing what emotional propensity they could create with this newfound angst made me crave more of this sound. Unfortunately this kind of guitar work is rarely seen in the entire album, but I’m happy to have it here. (Listen out for the cracking whip that they sneak in at 5:04, it’s a pretty brilliant addition to the piece.) While the tracks in Thank Your Lucky Stars are still unique enough from one another, each song in the album is a bit too repetitive–they definitely could have benefited from taking a few more breaths from their constant instrumental layering. After all, they are throwing a lot of Beach House at us all at once.

Knowing that these albums came at a challenging time in the band’s musical career, a time when they questioned if they could ever produce any more music after their last album, I believe these two albums are a way of proving to themselves that this struggle is what motivates artists to produce good work. Right now, they’re wandering, exploring the other side of the road. But Beach House is always looking deeper, and asking you to do the same, to decode what you’re hearing. Never underestimate how clever and self-referential they can be. (Sub Pop)

Listen: “Space Song” and “Elegy to the Void”

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