You’d be hard-pressed to find two musical duos with more divergent attitudes than Beach House and The Chainsmokers. The former are the Baltimore duo who, for the past 17 years, have been slowly but surely working towards renown and indie ubiquity through their pursuit of a powerful, cosmic kind of dream pop. Their music is ultra-specific, defined by metronomic drum machines, elliptical guitar lines and washes of synth organ, and seems to transcend the commercial and creative imperatives of the modern music industry. The Chainsmokers, on the other hand, could not have existed at any time other than now. A bro–EDM duo known for a swag of monstrous pop hits, they seem to represent an entirely inverted mode of creativity to Beach House, making music that is cheap, nasty and – seemingly intentionally – disposable.
This made it all the more surprising when in 2018 The Chainsmokers decided to release a song called “Beach House” – a flimsy, maddeningly catchy piece of sop that uses the image of listening to Beach House as shorthand for nuance or emotional depth. In the video, The Chainsmokers’ frontman Drew Taggart mugs in front of a Los Angeles sunset wearing the LA bro uniform of high-tops and a plain white T-shirt, singing: “Woke up on the west side / Listening to Beach House, taking my time / She’s just my type / Dark hair wavin’ out the passenger side…” The band’s invocation of an iconic indie band feels extremely personal and, to a degree, anti-commercial, and seemed to frustrate people to no end. In an essay for Pitchfork, the critic Jillian Mapes wrote that The Chainsmokers were “[reducing Beach House’s sound] to a feeling, and that feeling [is] being used to sell things without their consent”.
For all the fuss that fans and critics may have made about that song, Beach House remained unflapped. “I think people made a big deal about it, and we just kind of were like, ‘Whatever’,” says Victoria Legrand, one half of Beach House alongside musician Alex Scally. When I ask them one morning in late October about the whole Chainsmokers thing, the pair seem to take the same kind of cosmically serene attitude that their music conveys. “It’s a wild, crazy world – people do what they want, and we don’t have strong opinions about it. It’s a form of flattery.”
Legrand and Scally are calling from Baltimore to discuss their next chapter: an expansive, intoxicating, entirely self-produced album titled Once Twice Melody. Due out in February on Sub Pop, it’s the duo’s first double album and eighth record overall, an 18-song album that will be released in four chapters over the coming months. The first, released earlier this week, is titled “Pink Funeral”; the second, “New Romance”, is out in December; chapter 3, “Masquerade”, will drop in January; and the final chapter, “Modern Love Stories”, will be released on February 18 with the full album.
When we speak, the band are more concerned with trying to find a way to distil a three-year creative process into words than the way their “vibe” might have disseminated into the culture. “I’m very reluctant to define anything at this point, you know, because you’re talking to two artists who have put years of their life into a record,” Legrand says. “Working, in general, on art, is like working on anything that you care about – it’s intense, but it’s beautiful, and there are good days and bad days. But how much we care about what we do has not changed. This record is different than the last record, as every record has been different.”
They can afford a little aloofness when it comes to their image, in other words – Beach House have had a long time to get used to people trying to nick a bit of their shine. As their band has grown in popularity, various parties have attempted to siphon off their glamour and warmth. Sometimes it’s flattering and ends up being genuinely culturally significant, as when The Weeknd sampled the early Beach House songs “Gila” and “Master of None” on his era-defining 2011 mixtape House of Balloons, or when Kendrick Lamar sampled the 2010 song “Silver Soul” on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, his major-label debut. At other times, it’s been kind of creepy. In 2012, Volkswagen ripped off the Beach House song “Take Care” in alarming detail after the band repeatedly refused to license it to them for an advertisement. Beach House’s music has a powerful, undeniable lustre – even lovesick bros and yuppie ad agents seem to understand they have a quality that’s hard to find anywhere else.
It is, altogether, a surprising trajectory for what is genuinely one of the most idiosyncratic bands to have emerged in the past 20 years: a group who refract shoegaze into its most hypnotic, crystalline form.
Formed in Baltimore in 2004 shortly after Legrand and Scally graduated from their respective colleges, the band were heaped with praise early on but, due to their refusal to discuss their personal lives and their unique, small-scale sound – bedroom pop that sounded dusty and private, like a box of old photos found at an estate sale – seemed unlikely stars.
Somewhat self-effacingly, Scally offers an explanation for the band’s popularity in a time of algorithmic curation: “Because we work in abstraction, it seems like a lot of the people who like our music and enjoy listening to it have pretty different reactions to it, and it means something different to all of them,” he says. “So maybe we’ve actually, like, positioned ourselves unconsciously to be just right for the personalised era.” No doubt the fact that Beach House’s music always feels like hearing a secret shared between band and listener has quite a bit to do with their success.
Somewhere along the line – likely around their third album and first for big-budget indie label Sub Pop, 2010’s Teen Dream – the band found themselves with an ardent fanbase, playing in increasingly large rooms. A few albums down the line – many of which, including 2012’s Bloom and 2015’s Thank Your Lucky Stars, are modern classics – Legrand and Scally have become even bigger, without sacrificing any of their stylistic integrity or anti-individualist messaging. Nearly two decades into their career the duo behind Beach House are possibly the biggest they’ve ever been, all because of that spectral, ineffable magic.
That magic gets its biggest platform yet with Once Twice Melody. “This was the largest work we’ve ever made, so even more so than past records, the point of completion always felt infinitely far away,” Scally says. The creation process was a three-year odyssey that began in 2018, after the release of the band’s most recent album, 7. The whole thing was recorded in the band’s Baltimore rehearsal space, and doing everything themselves, without any constraints, allowed the band to indulge their wildest creative instincts. “This record asked for a more creative way of sequencing and viewing it,” adds Legrand. “The scope and the range of the world – the universe itself – felt larger and more, you could say cinematic, literary.”
The result is a record that’s more variegated than any past Beach House record. Like 7 it’s heavy, featuring propulsive live drums in addition to the band’s usual drum machines. But for the most part, it’s an entirely different world, featuring lush string sections, acidic synths, vignettes that sound like they should score a new Star Wars film, moments that seem to reference acid-house and the cult post-punk band Suicide. “Pink Funeral”, the title track of the record’s first chapter, sounds almost like a trap song. They manage all of this while still sounding entirely like Beach House: the mark, perhaps, of a band that now knows itself so well they can venture virtually anywhere musically with impunity.
“I think a big part of creativity is longing – you’re always looking for something more, and I think we’ve kept making music because we kept finding things that were new or exciting,” Legrand says. Although Once Twice Melody is long, it rarely feels unwieldy or gratuitous; Legrand and Scally’s songwriting is as strong as it has ever been, and it’s exciting to hear unusual sounds subsumed into the Beach House ecosystem. “This record, we wanted to do strings and vocoder, and so many [other] things that we used for the first time. We just sort of unleashed all of our desires. If you’re lucky, and if your heart’s in it, you’ll get these little gifts that are like these little surprises.”
Once Twice Melody contains surprises aplenty, but it also draws on threads that first emerged on past albums. The album’s final chapter, “Modern Love Stories”, feels like a continuation of “Drunk in LA”, the gorgeous, open-hearted centrepiece of 7.
But where 7’s meditations were noirish and sometimes wide-eyed with fear, Legrand circa “Modern Love Stories” seems contented and magnanimous, a benevolent angel looking down on the world and offering advice to the people down below. “Hurts to Love”, one of the clear highlights from the set, features one of the most transparent, most effusive hooks of the band’s entire career: “If it hurts to love, you better do it anyway,” Legrand sings, a hopeful coda after a record that occasionally slips into a dark fugue.
“[‘Hurts to Love’] has a certain purity to it – It’s like this universal little feeling that sits right there,” Legrand says. “It feels like a bit of a love letter to suffering … A little love letter to people you’ll never meet, but you all know that you care about one another. There’s not a lot of frills [to the song] and there’s a directness to it.” The song is spare and upbeat, closer in tone to the kind of songs that populated Devotion, the band’s sophomore record.
“We always have to think about listening to what the song wants,” says Scally. “And a lot of times when we’re working on songs there’s this quality of almost like, painting with thin layers – we just slowly build up a texture. Like, ‘Oh, that’s what the chorus melody wants, it wants to like, have like a big bed or a pillow to lay on.’ That song didn’t want any adding or subtracting from it.”
On songs such as “Hurts to Love” and “The Bells”, another highlight from “Modern Love Stories”, Beach House seem to be holding court from the stars above, which Scally acknowledges the band have been trending towards: “I do think we’ve been – for many years and probably increasingly as we work on more and more records – heading out to the cosmos,” he says. “The Bells” is a tumbling, free-associative ballad that numbers among the band’s best, smeary and fluid in one moment and crisp in the next.
A song like “The Bells” seems to say a lot about where Beach House are at the moment – missing the heat and frisson of living among other people after a few years disconnected from everything else, wistful and optimistic in equal measure. Once Twice Melody is bracingly hopeful – in character, it feels a little like Teen Dream or Bloom in terms of its almost childlike sense of wonder and neon-saturated glow.
“Every new day is another chance to make something, love something, be kind to someone,” Legrand says. What she finds personally inspiring at the moment is the human potential for kindness, in the face of everything. And, indeed, Once Twice Melody feels like the kind of album primed to make turncoats of ardent pessimists. “I just think that the future does not have to be a terrible place – it can be a place of love.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 13, 2021 as "Unleashed desires".
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