Rarely is an artist’s sound described so aptly by their genre as Beach House’s is by the term “dream pop”. Since their 2006 debut, the Baltimore duo have produced music that is light on obvious narrative direction and heavy on feeling; longing, nostalgia, melancholy and starry-eyed adoration, conveyed by Victoria Legrand’s distinctive vocal presence and paired with elaborate arrangements of synthesizer and guitar. 7 arrives just under a year after Beach House emptied their closet on the B-Sides and Rarities compilation, implicitly positioning the new album as something of a reintroduction, the beginning of a new era. This notion is emphasised by the trading-in of longtime co-producer Chris Coady for Peter Kember, better known as Sonic Boom, and the expansion of the band’s sound into deeper and darker territory.
Whereas previous albums were content in leading you gently by the hand into their depths, 7 drags you straight under the surface with opening track ‘Dark Spring’, a Candy Claws-channelling wave of pseudo-shoegaze packed with searing guitar tones and clattering drum fills. Fans are often quick to lament Beach House’s supposed unwillingness to push their sound into new directions, but a comparison between 7 and the average track from a previous album demonstrates just how much heavier the band’s textures are this time around; cymbals crash with greater presence, snare hits seem to echo into the void.
As the juxtaposition between dark and light becomes more pronounced in the band’s sonics, the contrast between beauty and pain feels like appropriate subject matter
Peculiar synth loops set the stage for tracks like ‘Lemon Glow’ and ‘Black Car’, only to be drowned in an enveloping mix as the song unfolds, while the serenely flirtatious tone of ‘Dive’ is turned on its head halfway through as the drums kick in, propelling the song into a thunderous climax. 7 is Beach House at their most abrasive, at times recalling the chaos of Depression Cherry’s ‘Sparks’ – a track which felt mildly incongruous with the rest of its native album but would fit quite comfortably into the tracklist here.
This is all not to say that the duo has forgotten how to play it pretty; rarely do these harsher gestures go without some familiar gorgeousness to even them out. Legrand’s vocals are as rich as ever, and she murmurs sentence fragments like a prophetess. ‘Pay No Mind’ is a swaying, slowcore-infused ballad, and ‘Last Ride’ makes for a cathartic closer, gaining speed as it goes and finally collapsing into a whirl of distortion. The shattered face on the album cover provides some insight into both this track and ‘Girl of the Year’, which directly precedes it. Both are concerned lyrically with models who died relatively young – Nico and Edie Sedgwick respectively – and the morbid specificity is unusual for Beach House. Yet it makes sense; as the juxtaposition between dark and light becomes more pronounced in the band’s sonics, the contrast between beauty and pain feels like appropriate subject matter. “The twisted double edge of glamour, with its perils and perfect moments, was an endless source [of inspiration]” wrote the duo in a brief essay accompanying the album release, and it plainly shows on even a cursory read of 7’s lyrics; “I am loving losing life” sighs Legrand on ‘Drunk in L.A.’.
Beach House’s soundscape only grows more nuanced, more alluring, more dangerous, and more difficult to pin down
The songs on 7 are more meandering and less immediate or catchy than some of Beach House’s past material; a new sheen of impenetrability may dissuade certain listeners. Those who enjoy the new direction will still likely agree that not every tune is a winner; ‘Lose Your Smile’ pales in comparison to most of its neighbours, and while ‘L’inconnue’ is littered with interesting ideas – echoing vocals, segments in French, tumbling drum fills – it falls slightly short of a compelling, fully coherent track.
If 7 is not Beach House’s most consistent effort, however, then at least the highs feel earned, wrought from inventive developments to a formula that threatened to overtake the band on 2015’s lovely-but-a-bit-samey Depression Cherry/Thank Your Lucky Stars double release. It’s possibly their most complex record to date, each listen revealing new sounds, new details, new possible ways of interpreting phrases like “Memory’s a sacred meat”. With 7, Beach House’s soundscape only grows more nuanced, more alluring, more dangerous, and more difficult to pin down. Such is the nature of dreams, both intimately personal and overwhelmingly vast – sometimes you just have to close your eyes and get lost in them.