Beach Fossils
Photo: Matt Allen / Pitch Perfect PR

Beach Fossils Commence Summer with the Excellent ‘Bunny’

Beach Fossils have progressed in their songcraft on Bunny and it gives you a lift, some time to recover, a soundtrack for good memories, and a desire for more.

Beach Fossils
2 June 2023

Earlier this year, I had a chance to see the Alex Katz retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum on the Upper East Side in New York. Katz has been a fixture in the New York art scene for decades, and the quiet influence of his paintings, which strike a compromise between abstract expressionism and figurative portraiture, can be seen in any number of venues. Every other cover illustration of The New Yorker seems to reflect aspects of his style and worldview, which mostly concerns leisure. Summer scenes in Maine and dinner party interiors populate his work. 

Above all, Katz has focused on his wife, Ada, completing numerous portraits of her over time. This lifelong obsession became apparent as I slowly made my way up the Guggenheim’s spiral gallery. Taken together, Katz appears to be less concerned with documenting or reinventing her life and more concerned with perfecting an ideal – the ideal of Ada as a person, but also the steadfast ideal of figurative painting in an age of film photography and now digital photography. His life’s work could be said to be in pursuit of this one ambition.

By way of analogy, Beach Fossils equally possess these features of a New York pedigree and the frequent depiction of middle- and upper-middle-class leisure in stylish tones and compositions. Most importantly, like Katz, Dustin Payseur, the band’s founder, seems obsessed with perfecting an ideal – in this instance, the platonic ideal of a pop song. In contrast to other musicians and bands that grapple with reinvention in a manner reflective of Bob Dylan and his many incarnations, Beach Fossils appear content with focusing on a single paradigm and achieving its epitome in form and content.

This general take is not to suggest that Beach Fossils have become calcified. Their new album Bunny marks a clear step forward in production value and tightened songcraft. Beach Fossils’ self-titled debut album in 2010 had a retro quality that captured an earlier period of pop music and, true to their name, California surf rock specifically. Similar to Fleet Foxes, who created an uncanny folk-rock vibe circa 1969 on their self-titled debut and Helplessness Blues (2011), Beach Fossils demonstrated a keen attention to the past by faithfully replicating the sound of a distant era. Both bands embodied the idea of “anemoia” – nostalgia for a past that one hasn’t experienced firsthand. 

Nevertheless, this type of homage, however skilled in its execution, also possessed an insular quality disconnected from the present. Such an approach can quickly devolve into a gimmick with all the emotion and authenticity of a wax museum. Beach Fossils’ second album Clash the Truth (2013) subsequently readjusted their sound in the direction of 1980s British post-punk with touches of New Order, the Cure, and the Jesus and Mary Chain found on tracks like “Clash the Truth”, “Birthday”, and “Caustic Cross”. Their third LP, Somersault (2017), continued to experiment with guest artists like Cities Aviv, who provided an R&B feel to “Rise,” and Rachel Goswell (Slowdive) on “Tangerine”, which conveyed Payseur’s regard for 1990s Britpop. The track “Saint Ivy” even had a flute solo. 

Bunny pulls back on such tentative moves to zero in on crafting a perfect pop sound. Similar to Clash the Truth, the points of reference this time firmly draw from the 1980s and early 1990s, with the jangle pop and dream pop of those periods forming the predominant modes across the album. The excellent opener “Sleeping on My Own” announces this approach, with Payseur and Co. employing a guitar-and-vocal harmonic structure that, to my ear, harks back to the early albums of the Church like Of Skins and Heart (1981), The Blurred Crusade (1982), and Heyday (1985). Tracks like “Run to the Moon” and “(Just Like The) Setting Sun” further recall the acoustic dream pop of bands like Cocteau Twins and Mojave 3. “Anything Is Anything” conjures the atmospheric sound of Luna’s early albums. Lush and Pale Saints also drop in on later tracks.

Beyond internalizing the 4AD catalog during its peak period, Payseur has a light touch when it comes to lyrics. The songs dwell on lost loves, difficult relationships, taking drugs, driving and staying up all night, and missing people. These are not wildly original or demanding themes, but they fit the music and provide a balm as the album progresses. “Kill the cliché / For a moment / And I’ll tell it like it is,” Payseur sings in “Dare Me” to a nameless lover. This instance is less a plaintive sentiment of frustration and more a minute of self-awareness. He recognizes the power and limits of the pop song as a means of emotional communication. 

The lead single, “Don’t Fade Way”, might be the best song Beach Fossils have ever recorded. I am not sure how it could be improved. Musically, it channels the jangle pop style of guitarists like Peter Buck, Johnny Marr, and the late Tom Verlaine. Like any great 1980s pop song, the lyrics impart the melancholia that comes from unfulfilled love. “The city hasn’t felt the same / Since you moved away,” it begins. “Man, we had some days / Wonder if you found your way.” It has the pace of a car accelerating on an empty freeway late at night, and Payseur makes it sound effortless.

This being their first album in six years, does the title Bunny signal a leap forward or a leap back? I would contend the album does both. Beach Fossils have progressed in their songcraft without abandoning their orientation and affection for preceding pop music eras. As a native of North Carolina, Payseur appears to be tipping his hat to the Connells on some tracks. Beach Fossils equally share an affinity with the recent output of Real Estate and Alvvays. Though there are despondent moments, Bunny is confident and ultimately optimistic. 

With a name like Beach Fossils, plenty of wearisome jokes can be made about summer and going to the beach. Still, the release of this album seems perfectly timed. Its abiding credo may be a line from “Dare Me”, with Payseur remarking, “Nothin’ feels better than wasting time.” Like Alex Katz, he understands there is art to be found in just hanging out.

Bunny is the kind of album you want to put on when you are driving home from a day at the shore with the car windows down, having had a little too much beer and sun, and having smoked that last cigarette you promised yourself you wouldn’t have. This album has that kind of vibe. Beach Fossils give you a lift, some time to recover, a soundtrack for good memories, and a desire for more.

RATING 9 / 10