Baltimore’s Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand are in an enviable position. As the dream pop duo Beach House, they’ve released three excellent records – they’ve never turned in anything mediocre – that have gradually racked up sales in exponential numbers (2006’s Beach House sold 24,000 copies, 2008’s Devotion moved 49,000 units and 2010’s breakthrough Teen Dream racked up 137,000 copies) and the group has moved from Washington, D.C.-imprint Carpark to the bigger leagues of Sub Pop. They’ve landed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Conan, did a live session for Daytrotter, and spent nearly 18 months on the road playing the likes of Coachella, Sasquatch! and Austin City Limits, not to speak of opening for Vampire Weekend on their Fall 2010 tour. Scally and Legrand have, in a very short period of time, moved into indie rock’s upper echelon of acts, a position the two have, according to media reports, a bit of an uncomfortable relationship with. However, the success of Beach House also puts the group at a bit of a brick wall.
Already, there are artists such as Toronto’s similarly named Memoryhouse (also a Sub Pop band) that are now piggybacking on the sound of Beach House, presumably to capitalize on the duo’s success. And while Teen Dream is a great album, and justifiably landed on many a critical Top 10 list at the end of 2010, it was arguably a bit repetitive with songs that bludgeoned the heck out of its hooks, and marked a bit of a continuation of a wispy, airy sound that listeners had already heard on the first two albums. So, the question is where could Beach House go from here? Repeat the same formula that has been tried, tested and true for the group, or try something a bit different and hope that it congeals in a way that doesn’t alienate the band’s growing fanbase?
Well, the members of Beach House have taken the latter road with their fourth long-player, Bloom, to beyond satisfying effect. In fact, Bloom is a masterstroke, an utter gamechanger. Instead of offering another collection of songs that feels more like a random collection of similarly-linked ideas, Beach House made a rarity in the MP3 era: an album that you can sit down and listen to from start to end. In fact, Bloom probably can’t be listened to any other way. This is not a record for the iPod shuffle. This is an album that you have to experience in logical order, and get swept away by, with virtually each successive song raising the bar on what followed. The group also makes ample use of interstitial sounds between some of the ten tracks here (not counting a buried hidden bonus song), with wind howling, birds chirping, cars swooshing by, children whispering and so on, to create an experience that suggests a grander sense of unity than the group has tried before.
However, Bloom isn’t as experimental as it may appear: the songs are top shelf, and the group dials down the “dream” in the dream pop equation and turns up the “pop” aspect. This may turn off some of the older fans who are used to and probably expecting more songs that whisk by like a vapor trail, but the rest of us will revel in the sheer musical craftsmanship now on display. Here, the material feels more like actualized songs than repeated riffs, there’s a certain Cure-esque feel to some of the tracks with an aped Robert Smith shimmer of watery guitar, and Legrand sometimes comes off sounding like Siouxie Sioux. If albums such as Teen Dream were, in fact, the sound of interconnected nocturnal stirrings, then Bloom is more rooted in the firmament of reality.
Bloom announces that it’s is a very different beast than anything that proceeded it by the clang of what one might assume is a bell on the opening beats of lead-off track “Myth”. This is a song which even offers the line “found yourself in a new direction”, something the duo of Beach House has, here, indeed, moved themselves in. The reason, suggested by Legrand in the same song is that one “can’t keep hanging on / to what’s been dead and gone” and that “the past will catch you” on “Wild”. Clearly, Beach House is out to mix things up a bit, shake up their bag of tricks and hone their mastercraft of songwriting. This is most evident on official penultimate track, the absolutely haunting “On the Sea”, which starts out with a gently strummed series of acoustic guitar chords before a saloon-like piano gently fades into the song. From there, things go on to new levels, as a spaghetti-Western guitar gently muscles its way into the mix and a careening organ is added in. Instead of repeating the same tired refrain on the same mid-tempo organ and guitar figure, the group has effectively expanded its sonic palette by layering in more instrumentation. And then, the song gradually fades out all of its layers and winds up on the same cascading acoustic guitar figure that opens the piece, and ends on windswept sound effects, which then give way for the final track (not counting the bonus material), “Irene”. It’s simply glorious to listen to, creating the “strange paradise” that Legrand sings about on “Irene”.
However, the rest of the album is full of immediately bracing tunes, too. “Wild” has a certain New Wave feel to it with its antiquated drum machine laying down the foundation, and Scally peeling the paint off of figurative walls with his guitarwork. “Lazuli” gleefully opens with a Casio-like ping of notes, before the song transforms itself into something from the Cure’s Disintegration in its open and spacious sound that feels epic in rendering. “Other People” is perhaps the most poppy and accessible moment on the record, with its memorable hook in the chorus that feels like it came right out of 1982 British indie pop. “The Hours” opens with glorious and angelic multi-tracked female sighs reminiscent of “Zebra” from Teen Dream, before trotting into a creaky and catchy composition, a trick repeated in “New Year” without it sounding like something needless and unnecessary. It isn’t until you get to the hidden bonus track, “Wherever You Go” that Beach House winds up sounding kind of like the Beach House of Teen Dream days and earlier, with its washes of steel guitar and morose keyboards. It’s telling that this is buried at the very end. While the group is obviously reaching back to older albums, it feels as though Beach House didn’t want the song getting in the way of the overall tonality of the much more refined songs that appear on the rest of the album.
Bloom is a record of expansiveness and growth, but there’s also a sense of restraint. The work presented here feels completely effortless and organic, as though the songs simply unspooled themselves. There is not one blemish on the entire record, and the group has matured to a point where they don’t feel that they have to ride a certain feel or emotion for a good five minutes: Beach House has learned and realized the delectability of the foundational nature of a great verse followed by an astounding and astonishing chorus. Its impact is one that is profoundly mesmerizing. Bloom should be to the year 2012 what Loveless was to 1991, or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was to 2002, or Funeral was to 2004: a landmark release. Without diminishing the import of the group’s earlier efforts, Bloom is the first Beach House album that one can love absolutely unreservedly and care about even from the very first listen, and that feeling is not diminished in any shape or form on repeated spins. This may create a new brick wall for the group: I don’t know how on earth the band is going to top this absolutely impeccable set of material (a fact that the group seemingly addresses on “Myth” with the lines: “what comes after this? / momentary bliss.”) But, for now, Bloom is simply the best thing to amble along in quite a while from any band.
Teen Dream may have positioned the band in many a critical year-end list, but Bloom is probably going to be the album, the bar, for other musicians to beat this year. Bloom is a gushing collection of top tier songs that have been carefully knitted together for maximum impact, and is absolutely gorgeous and stunning. In short, Scally and Legrand might have to become a whole lot more comfortable with the trappings of fame, because Bloom is going to rightfully earn them a whole new legion of fans that will lap up the mystery that Beach House so very effectively conjures up with this unsullied release. We’ll see if Bloom will sell even more exponentially and reach gold level status in sales, but, as it stands, this is an album that is simply, in the most awe-inspired sense of the term, absolutely golden from end to end – a real treasure and an utter delight to experience every time you play it.