“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” Not our words but those of jazz colossus Charles Mingus, which ring especially true in the case of Baltimore dream-pop duo Beach House.
Nostalgic for the vanished environs of Kerouc’s America, Beach House’s magical sound is a tribute to simpler times. Over the course of four albums, the band have illuminated eternal truths about love and loss with just the aid of some organ drone, Alex Scally’s picked, golden-age guitar and Victoria Legrand’s otherworldly vocals. But with simplicity comes repetition. Doing one thing very well isn’t enough to sustain an entire career and, on album number five, Beach House sound in dire need of a change of pace.
‘Depression Cherry’’s preview single ‘Sparks’ – with its shoegazey guitar, discordant organ and rusty-sounding mixing – appeared to signpost that much needed new look. ‘Beyond Love’ too, hints at an expanded, rockier sound. But it turns out both are experimental red herrings to the album’s more-of-the-same approach.
Celestial opener ’Levitation’ finds Legrand ruminating on the album’s overriding theme of love’s power to free the mind (“I can go anywhere you want me to/’Cause you blow my mind”) over a sea of reverb and twinkling organ. Instead of the great dusty highways, here it’s the heavens that provide the escape route. Lovely, sure. Heart-rending, oh yeah. But we’ve heard this same sound a thousand times before. Similarly, ‘Space Song’ is essentially the same old Beach House aesthetic disguised as a retro-futurist ballad (think OutKast’s ‘Prototype’ with less Prince and more Neutral Milk Hotel).
Otherwise the duo stick closely to their signature steady pacing and two-piece dynamic, with diminishing returns. There’s only a certain amount you can do with just a voice and one bedroom instrumentalist. Emotionally speaking, the set-up affords Legrand a blank canvas for her exploration of the human condition, but sonically it’s becoming increasingly uninteresting. ‘10:37’’s attempt at sinister erotica is frustratingly underdeveloped, abstract lyrics (Where you go she casts no shadow/Still you know she’s near”) leaving too much to the imagination and not enough to go on. The dense ‘PPP’ meanwhile, sounds so geared towards evoking nostalgia that it edges dangerously close to self-parody.
At its heart, ‘Depression Cherry’ is an album about the wonder of true happiness, with space, or the infinite used as a metaphor for love. “From an empty sea, a flash of light” sings Legrand on ‘Space Song’, delivering the record’s key line. But it’s difficult to share the singer’s awe when the musical backdrop sounds so tired. Finale ‘Days Of Candy’ is a cosmic hymnal using sci-fi synths and devotional choirs, but it’s too little, too late. This is one fairytale losing its magic in the retelling.