Beach House: 7
By Noah Franklin
7 begins and ends with star death. With the album’s opener “Dark Spring,” celestial bodies go cold. At the close, in “Last Ride,” the lyrics follow the final moments before German singer, actress, and model Nico dies in a bike crash. For Beach House, with death comes rebirth. This whole album is a rebirth for Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, arriving after last year’s B Sides and Rarities, a release where they squeezed out all of the clinging remnants of older eras in order to start fresh. This reset on 7 involved ditching their old producer and working with a new one (Peter Kember AKA Sonic Boom), a way to break up hardened songwriting habits. They’ve also allowed themselves to not worry about a future of performing these songs live, a limitation that has surely fettered ideas in the past. What emerges is a welcome shake to a well-established status quo. Legrand and Scally are not cautious with new life. They’re more reckless here. They allow ideas to shoot off and explode. Where previous Beach House songs yawned and swayed into a moment, these tracks have momentum—sometimes lumbering, sometimes racing, but always with a dynamic, directional energy.
Some of this comes from a new sonic clarity. It’s as if they’ve dragged up the sharpness slider in Photoshop just a little bit. The drums have a rock-and-roll punch to them. Some other instrumentation emerges from the fold, like the deep, buzzy bass of “Pay No Mind” or the stirring synth ringlets on “Lemon Glow.” And Legrange often sounds like she’s leading the music, rather than the other way around. She’s caught by the pull of desire—for communication (“Pay No Mind”), for stability (“Black Car”), for everything (“Woo”). “I had a good run playing horses in my mind,” she sings on “Drunk In LA,” “left my heart out somewhere running, wanting strangers to be mine.” She sounds breathless, charged, glorious, like she’s hit a runner’s high at the end of a marathon, and the thick wall of sound swells to keep her pace.
In moments like this, Legrange feels part and parcel of the album’s thrust. Or even its conductor. And yet she still sings with the same breathy gloss as always. Except for the fact that a couple of songs cut off abruptly, there are no real jagged edges in this album. The instruments and production flourishes are definitely more agitated, but they don’t poke out of the mix. The duo lets them breathe but keeps them contained so that the songs balloon outwards into mammoth masses of dream pop. Like the black and white collage on the album art, pieces are torn and turned in different directions, but all smoothed over with a noir glaze.
In no way is this album simply Beach House’s moment of motion over stillness. They have not just shifted gears and gunned straight down the highway. The songs and the album as a whole evolve in velocity—that is, both in direction and speed. “Dark Spring” chugs along for a full minute until legitimately startling chords lap at the sides and knock it off kilter. “Dive” swirls and gently revs its engine before hurtling into the album’s energetic peak. “L’Inconnue,” a standout track for its range of beauty, begins with Legrange’s ghostly voice alone, overlapping and echoing itself, her own church choir. This then turns into a hypnotic French chant until a compressed drum loop rises up and sends the track into a kind of fuzzy beat drop in the realm of Youth Lagoon’s Year of Hibernation. Except here, as Legrange’s voice soars back in from above, it’s not restrained into bedroom pop; it's cathedral-sized.
The title of this song is a reference to a strange slice of history. In the late 1880s, a young woman was found dead in the Seine. There being no signs of foul play, she must have drowned herself. As the story goes, a pathologist at the morgue was so moved by her face that he had a plaster death mask made. The mask became a ubiquitous fixture in the Paris art scene, and has since inspired literature, ballet, and film alike. The expression of L’Inconnue de la Seine (the Unknown Woman of the Seine), as she’s known, is one of utter serenity.
It is odd to think that a frozen image of such finality has birthed so much art. But this is what Beach House is working with here. We know that beauty can come from death, and this is where Beach House finds much of theirs. Gold is forged in cosmic explosions. And as goes the popular Carl Sagan soundbite, “We are made of starstuff” too. It’s also true that the stars that burn the brightest have the shortest life spans—that somehow stardom comes at a lethal price. Beach House suggests that in the wake of such splendor being snuffed out, though, we’re not left with nothing. Perhaps what we’re left with is some sort of shadow seeded with life—a “Dark Spring.” 7 closes with a restless outro that rings in your ears long after the beat is gone. It suggests motion that continues after death, waiting to channel itself into something new, in whatever form it may take.