Album Review: Beach House – Bloom

[Sub Pop; 2012]

Beach House are living proof of that old adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. From the opening moments of “Myth,” with a tinny, think-I-can beat supporting Alex Scally’s distant, stargazing guitar sighs and soft arpeggiating keys, it’s clear that Bloom will not be a huge departure from their previous record. And once Victoria Legrand’s husky, reverbed vocals that arrive on the track like puffy cumulus clouds over a picturesque horizon, we know we’re firmly (and familiarly) in ethereal country. While this might prove disappointing to those fans anxious for something different from the Baltimore duo, the aching sweetness of Bloom’s ten tracks (well, eleven, including the hidden track) should override any misgivings one might have about the band’s seeming lack of stylistic evolution.

That’s not to say that Bloom is just a carbon copy of Teen Dream. There are subtle tonal differences throughout. For instance, the grumblingly electronic introduction of “Wild” that gives way to a rather M83-esque bit of epic shoegazing electric guitar is a little more analog than we’re used to from the duo, more Peaking Lights than Cocteau Twins. Of course, the sweeping cymbals and effortlessly catchy melodies remain the same, but there’s a distinctively nocturnal quality to the proceedings here that mirrors but also differs from Teen Dream’s melancholic sunrays. And everything just feels *bigger*. Technically speaking, they’ve outdone themselves.

Though I’ve come to regard “Myth” as my favorite of the album, I have to admit that my initial skepticism didn’t fully evaporate until “Lazuli.” Its heartbreaking keys and synth strings signal something tragic and beautiful about to take place, like an angel with its wings clipped attempting to return to the heavens. Or something equally cheesy; such is the dramatic imagery this band’s music gets me to imagine. It’s true that its general structure and breathy, wordless chorus seem more than a bit familiar. But the minor keys have a stronger presence this time around, resolving themselves in a way that they purposely didn’t on the rougher, more ambiguous “Norway.” It would be backhandedly dismissive to refer to Bloom as Teen Dream version 2.0, but that notion — of being the same but also different — is certainly valid.

And, I mean, Teen Dream was and remains an absolute masterpiece. Why change? Lyrically speaking, Legrand is just as romantically mournful as ever: “So you thought it would happen,” she begins on “Other People.” While we can assume she’s referring to a failed relationship, it doesn’t really matter what “you” thought “would happen.” What’s clear is that it didn’t happen, and Legrand has to deal with that reality. “Wasn’t ever quite enough,” she repeats as the song fades out with chimes and more of those live-sounding drums that made Teen Dream such a step up from the band’s prior releases in the first place. There’s “always a place to remind you,” as she notes on “Troublemaker,” further expressing Beach House’s obsession with the inevitable vagaries of nostalgia and memory. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The pain of unrequited love is “real and it is fake,” as she sang on Teem Dream’s “Take Care,” and it’s true; it’s an emotional fastball aimed right for the heart, but it remains teasingly intangible, a feeling that can’t be displaced because it’s never really there in the first place. “Can I believe in how the past is what will catch you?” Legrand asks on “Wild.” The question is rhetorical; of course the past will catch her. After all, the power of memory — especially that which is attached to lost love — is what she’s been singing about since 2006, “in the boxes of those picture frames.”

You’ll notice that I’ve mentioned Teen Dream rather often. I do this because it inescapably hovers over Bloom, whether that be the result of stylistic similarity or simply the burden of heightened expectations. If this seems unfair, well, such is the price Beach House pays for sticking to what they know. The beginning of “The Hours” unexpectedly reminds me of the Fugees’ timeless cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” all vocals and drums, until the rest of the song kicks in and brings us back to the smeared and comforting atmosphere of that which we call dream pop. When a flower blooms, it changes shape and appearance but not its biological essence; similarly, for all its subtle differences, Bloom avoids shedding the bittersweet swells that have become the duo’s stock-and-trade.

If Teen Dream represented the ups and downs of a youthful dalliance — time spent together, trying to ignore the looming expiration date on the boundless emotions conjured by intertwining limbs and vulnerable hearts — then Bloom is the music you hear on the drive home, a pitch-black sky casting shadows over everything but your ash-littered dashboard and the reluctant tears carving little lines of sadness and resignation on the face you keep hidden from the world. Let us be grateful that Beach House remain willing to share that face, if only for forty-five minutes at a time.