Album Review: Beach House – Once Twice Melody

[Sub Pop/Bella Union; 2022]

There are two primary ways of perceiving time. The most commonly understood is linear, where time exists on a forward-moving line. But what if time flows in a circle instead, eventually looping back on itself? Though this is a more abstract way of looking at time, it’s easy to see why the theory was conceived in the first place, given how repetitive and routine-driven the human experience is. It’s existential, provocative concepts like these that live at the forefront of Beach House’s latest album, Once Twice Melody. 

The Baltimore project of singer/songwriter and keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist/producer Alex Scally has been around since the mid-2000s and almost immediately forged a name for themselves with their fresh take on dream pop that drew influence from beloved groups like My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, and Slowdive. Despite emerging as would-be pioneers to an encroaching tidal wave of indie music, Beach House never seemed too preoccupied with how they were viewed. Instead, they continued to make music how they saw fit, gently shifting their approach between each album. In many ways, Once Twice Melody is the culmination of all of those approaches – a sweeping double album presented in four parts, containing some of their most ambitious and expansive work yet. 

Eight records deep and Once Twice Melody is, surprisingly, the first album the band produced entirely themselves. This newfound freedom results in a greater sense of playfulness and experimentation throughout the record. Even at 18 tracks, Once Twice Melody isn’t overstuffed or needlessly drawn out. Rather, Scally and Legrand give each track a distinct purpose as they hone in on new sounds and ideas and then meticulously sculpt them into shape. Whether it’s the effect-laden vocals in “Runaway” or a slide guitar that sounds like it’s bubbling up from the bottom of the ocean in “The Bells”, there’s little on Once Twice Melody that feels unintended or superfluous. 

Two of the most notable changes compared to the band’s past work are the emphasis on acoustic guitars and the addition of a live string section. The strings reside at the edges, filling in the larger arrangements as needed, taking the form of a haunting staccato in “Pink Funeral” or a droning backdrop for the soaring “Superstar”. The acoustic guitars, however, often take center stage, from the soft, fingerpicked chords in the title track, to a full-on acoustic power ballad in “Sunset”. 

Beach House don’t reinvent their sound on Once Twice Melody but they allow their influences to be more readily apparent. With a chorus full of roaring drums and a distorted gauze of guitar and synth, “Only You Know” is the most shoegaze the band have ever sounded, while the alluring “Masquerade” borrows the late-night mystique found throughout 7 and mixes it with a bit of Depeche Mode, making for what can only be described as ‘goth house’. Somehow, Beach House are able to display a reverence for the bands that have influenced their work for over a decade without losing their unique sonic identity in the process – rest assured, Once Twice Melody still sounds unmistakably Beach House. 

Keeping in line with the instrumentals, Legrand’s lyrics feel just as galactic in scope and theme. Legrand often takes on the perspective of a narrator, as if she’s speaking to a past self or hurriedly detailing important moments in a diary. “And in each silhouette / A time before the time we met / Here lies Violet who can’t forget what happens nеxt,” she sings on the effortless “Through Me”, playing with the notions of past, present, and future as though they all exist side by side before her. The band couples these lyrical motifs with musical ones — sounds of looping vocal effects and arpeggiated synthesizers create a coherent thesis statement. 

The endless emptiness of space and the subjective perception of time are also prominent themes on Once Twice Melody and leave visible imprints on Legrand’s lyrics. She regularly describes gazing up at a starry night sky, searching for patterns in the vast, indifferent universe that surrounds her. Her star-gazing becomes especially poetic in the seven-minute stunner “Over and Over”, as she describes the constellations as “Lilac, lily / Anemone in poses,” and “Soft, frail and bluе / The violets too / And roses.” 

There’s nothing on Once Twice Melody that recreates the immediacy of songs like “Take Care” or “Real Love” from Teen Dream, but with Legrand’s mind firmly stuck in the cosmic clouds, it would almost feel out of place here. Perhaps the one exception is “Superstar”, which, despite its celestial themes, feels grounded in a relatable narrative about love and loss. “Now you’re gone,” she muses, “Something good / Never meant to last.” It’s arguably the simplest song on the album, yet its emotional efficacy is undeniable. 

As we reach the closing track, “Modern Love Stories”, Beach House have distilled the album’s core themes and deliver a powerful reminder of their ability to deftly combine subtle experimentation with infectious melodies. After a dense, imposing first half, the arrangement suddenly fades to near black before Scally’s shimmering acoustic guitar illuminates the path ahead, concluding the record with a grand instrumental celebration. By the time Once Twice Melody reaches its closing moments, it sounds like the band are taking a well-earned victory lap in a career full of wins.