Suffering sweetly with Baltimore’s Beach House
That’s the funny thing about how it feels; you can’t touch it, but you can taste it.
A good place to start, when explaining the un-named and intangible sentiments whirling around Beach House’s fifth LP, Depression Cherry, would be to quote the record itself. In particular, a seven-word sentence at the album’s close: “The universe is riding off with you”. In short, it’s an album about the motion of everything and just how impossible understanding that everything is: a topic the band and I have just under 45 minutes to clamber through, around a sticky wooden table in an otherwise silent bar, stale with its hungover Sunday smells.
Beach House are Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, Legrand the band’s honeyed vocalist and organ player, Scally responsible for their gooey, rolling guitar lines. Their records, while often filed into the same box as the likes of Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors, have been consistent and singular delights, with lightly lurching, melodic wanderings, balancing in equal measure blushing pop-philosophies and undertows of longing. More than anything, the band and their sound are natural in the realest sense of the word.
This confidence, Legrand explains, comes from letting the creative impulse guide above anything else. “We took time before this album, just to breathe and forget the past. We didn’t know if we would make more music. We’ve always been totally accepting of whatever outcome. I think that’s a place some bands never get back to or don’t let themselves.” Fortunately, since the release of their self-titled first album in 2006, the impulse has seized with refreshing regularity. “We’ve never planned on making a record every two years, that’s just what has happened. We’ve always been very good at listening to what we need to do, or don’t need to do.”
Continuing on the period preceding Depression Cherry, Scally is keen to impress the importance of touring to their eventual productivity. “We tour so much on each record, just because we enjoy it so much, and it’s good because it means you get sick of your old music and it pushes you towards the future. When we get back to writing, this very unspoken thing presents itself.”
This unspoken thing, from the coloured narratives of 2008’s Devotion to the apocalyptic romanticisms of 2012’s Bloom, has been framed within a sound that has retained a common arrangement. Exercising ideas of every shape through a recurrent collection of drum machines, muted organs, and cavernous, reverberating guitars. This same arranged universe is the lifeblood, once again, on Depression Cherry, yet this time it feels weightier. The production is more raw and sprawling than before, ideas and method collide, along with concepts that are far less about story, and more sensation.
We begin trying to unpack some of these ideas with the new album’s title. A blunt, almost punk, couple of words that explode with either endless interpretations or complete meaninglessness. “The words came very naturally, side by side,” Legrand says, “it was a gift from the ether. It was confrontational to a point. We liked that.” Inducing flavour and colour, while evoking something darker and guttural, it introduces the record perfectly: an album of both the intensely personal, and the wildly abstract. “We thought it had an irreverence that felt very natural for the record,” Scally adds. “There’s a middle finger aspect to it.”
The irreverence, or middle finger, in the title is far from aggressive, but is instead a triumphant shrug at the futility of trying to articulate a feeling. “Several times throughout the writing of it, it definitely felt like something spiritual,” Legrand explains. “Something deeper that you can’t quite put your finger on. So much had this deep, but unplaceable feeling. You can attach any word to it, but really it’s what’s going on in all people.”
“When we were writing the album we felt something spiritual, something deeper that you can’t quite put your finger on” - Victoria Legrand
At this point in our conversation I, with some reticence, reach into my bag. The band, by their own admission, had written their own press release for Depression Cherry. Rather than packaging the record in neatly sellable soundbites, the first things I read about it were their thoughts. A collection of lyrics from the album, along with quotes from writers they felt best reached the unreachable places they were grasping for with every track. One of the quotes included belonged to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.” Through sheer coincidence, and admittedly a self-indulgent desire to make the bookshelf in my bedroom look more impressive, I had bought a Schopenhauer book a month earlier. Now, at risk of looking like the sort of fusty twat who corners you at a dinner party for an hour filling the room with bad breath and truisms, I was placing my book on the table.
“Our existence has no foundation on which to rest except the transient present”
After a moment or two turning this line over, Alex Scally leans forward to read it again, before reclining back into his chair. “If you say to a 22-year-old, ‘do you know that everything that happens in your life is irreversible? That there is this one direction, and that once something has happened, it has happened.’ The 22-year-old will be like, ‘yes of course’, but they won’t really understand what it means.” Does this make Depression Cherry a reflection on age; on the rush of existence that passes unnoticed “in the moment” of youth? He nods, “I think getting older is bewildering because you realise how deep everything actually goes. You start to grasp the heaviness of things, but it’s very beautiful. The inherent violence of existence.”
Perhaps wary of sounding too ‘wise’, Legrand weighs in. “Depression Cherry is definitely not an answer, it’s an exploration. It’s just an exploration of everything. Our life, the music, it’s all fused into one at this point, we’ve been doing it for so long. It’s part of the cycle of our lives.”
Yet in a way, this is the wisdom of Depression Cherry, albeit unintentionally via exploration. It is a record brave enough to reflect on life simply as a series of confused moments swallowing each other, existing briefly only to dissolve before they could ever be understood. The beauty then is how, through their closeness and experience as a partnership, Beach House have converted this energy into poetry above nihilism. As Scally puts it, “I think that the energies being channelled could not have been accessed before this point. There is something here that has never been there before.” Sensing the focus of the book might be helping us articulate these vaguest of feelings, I try another sentence.
“It resembles the course of a man running down a mountain who would fall over if he tried to stop, and can stay on his feet only by running on; or a pole balanced on the tip of a finger; or a planet which would fall into its sun if it ever ceased to plunge irresistibly forward.”
“Getting older is bewildering because you realise how deep everything actually goes. You start to grasp the heaviness of things, the inherent violence of existence” - Alex Scally
Once again, we return to that lyric from the album’s close, “the universe is riding off with you.” Whether understood in reference to the self, or somebody else being pulled away by the mechanics of time, both call to that devastating heavy swell in the pit of your stomach. The sudden knowledge that, completely out of your control, relationships, places, people, and even versions of yourself, are forever running away. “It’s constantly in motion,” Legrand begins, with a strangely comforting tone of peace in the face of such a hugely brutal idea. “It’s not like you should be constantly living in the mind, but those moments when you can see this giant universe, inside and out, it’s psychedelic, and amazing, but it’s also overwhelming, to realise you’re living. I guess the album was our opportunity to celebrate or grieve or admit or be violent.” Scally quietly agrees, “I think that’s a feeling all humans encounter.”
In effect, Depression Cherry allows the opportunity to relish in that sadness. To basically admit that even the things we are most sure we feel, know, or love, can and will escape us in an instant. It might sound like a lot for a nine-track album by an alternative rock band, and it might even sound pretentious, but in fact that couldn’t be further from the album’s point. Schopenhauer references aside, Legrand and Scally aren’t talking about a grand design, or a meticulously composed thesis. This is just a conversation about everything happening, over and over again.
Depression Cherry is released 28 August via Bella Union