Since Beach House’s 2010 breakout Teen Dream, vocalist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally have shown an affinity for striking patterned album sleeves. That particular record flaunted a nearly imperceptible cream-on-white zebra print, and its follow-up, 2012’s Bloom, featured a dramatic shrinking black-and-white polka dot pattern. Still, neither of those designs proved as appropriate for the music contained within as that of their highly-anticipated fifth album Depression Cherry. Its cover depicts only a single bold swatch of velvety scarlet, lush and vibrant, but also markedly plain and straightforward. Teen Dream and Bloom both bore simple, virtually colorless sleeves, but Beach House’s latest album takes the simplicity of those designs to another, almost minimalist level while delivering the splash of sharp, luminous color that the cover art for their early outings lacked. It’s a tip-off that something’s changed, but not necessarily for the better.
Musically, Depression Cherry is similarly neutral in that it’s a slow moving spectacle without range or gradation — just a single pigment isolated from a spectrum — but strangely, it’s also more sonically vibrant. Beach House have always acted through a blurry state of simplicity, from Scally’s droning guitar picking to the vague, buoyant melodies twisting out from Legrand’s vocals, and Depression Cherry doesn’t redirect that sensibility so much as recontextualize it through a novel palette of textures: humming, upfront organ sounds fill out the ethereal chords instead of the gentle, misty background synthesizers of previous albums, more active drum patterns broaden the rhythmic balance of the music, and distorted guitar lines replace the band’s signature dainty, clean leads. “Sparks”, the album’s first single, is the quintessential vehicle for these changes, taking the distinguishing qualities of Beach House’s once airy, lilting musical melodrama and emboldening it with fuller, louder cosmetics comparable to classic shoegaze.
The caveat is that the music is not necessarily more expressive as a result. The harmonic struggle between “Sparks”’ soaring guitar line and its mournful organ chord progression is rich and gratifying, but the vocals flatten it with a slow, lethargic melody that would have never worked in Teen Dream’s vast open spaces which relied on each musical piece to be individually stimulating. Songs like “Beyond Love”, while maintaining a more engaging vocal part, are similarly stagnant with static organ chord swells, and “PPP”, with a chiming guitar line that feels overly familiar coming from Beach House, fails to evolve much over its six minutes. The result is a thinner and far less dynamic sound overall — not the dreamy emotional aura usually associated with the vast, overpowering cacophony of shoegaze.
Even with expanded, chromatic textures, the band’s delivery feels limited. The muscular organ parts throughout the album are a dull through line, Legrand’s vocals are less innately emotional than ever, and the cheap drum machine beats — a once unique concept patched into Bloom’s transformative “Wild” — are overused. Beach House have never claimed to be versatile, but for once they seem to take for granted how well the individual components of their music play off of each other and their songs fall into an idle loop of same-sounding instrumentation and listless vocals. Ultimately, the moments of sheer beauty that the band have always excelled are flattened by a monotony of tone and texture typically diminished by a kind of melodic dynamism. Depression Cherry is a gorgeously lush album, but its charms border on saccharine when digested all at once. Some minor, targeted deviation from the formula would have pushed Depression Cherry to an unprecedented level of novelty for the band, but as it stands, the record falls into a creeping, achromatic daze far more ambitious than it is visionary.