The most important instrument on Beach House’s fourth album is the drum kit. Not Alex Scally’s wet, shimmering guitars or music-box synths; not Victoria Legrand’s husky voice; but the drums, big and booming. That’s important not just because they’re drums, but because drums are a symbol of music as a primal force, the instrument most capable of imitating hips and pelvis. The album, after all, is called Bloom, a process that ends in flowers but starts in sex.
The duo’s self-titled 2006 debut was the musical equivalent of dried glue, thin and ephemeral, flaking off and peeling away from itself. For years, they only seemed to work with two templates: “Wild Horses” and “Brahms Lullaby.” Beauty, for Beach House, was a byproduct of being very tired. I have, at times, suspected that they recorded only after charity sessions at the local blood bank.
What’s remarkable is the way they’ve maintained their commitment to a breathy, naïve kind of beauty while still managing to build a spine, vertebrae by vertebrae. Six years ago, Beach House sounded like children hiding out in an attic; now they’re like hard-bitten mystics, people who read tarot and drive through the desert wearing scarves. Too often, it goes unmentioned that Legrand — whose name, in case your French is rusty, literally means “The Big” — was a drama major in college, which is as good a starting point as any for explaining Bloom’s appeal: Like Broadway ballads, these songs are essentially swooning and frail-hearted, with pounds of makeup and gel lights thrown behind them.
A marriage of confidence and vulnerability is rare, especially in dream pop, where even the lightest brushing of an embroidered skirt hem against bare skin might qualify as fucking. Compared to the tentative approach of their last three albums, Bloom is the certain touch of a warm, rough hand. Of course, if variety interests you, you’ll be disappointed. Beach House don’t do variety: They do one song, and they’ve done it about 40 times now. The song is beautiful, grainy, and mid-tempo, with extremely basic chord changes and crummy, vague lyrics (sample from “Wild”: “My mother said to me that I would get in trouble / Our father won’t come home, ’cause he is seeing double”). Now, though, it just has bigger drums.
Does that make all the difference? Oddly, yeah. Humans are easily programmable that way. Whereas Beach House’s music once sounded unsure of whether or not it needed to be in the world at all, now it demands serious couch space. Songs like “Myth,” “Troublemaker,” and “Wishes” are underpinned by rhythm tracks that are eerily heavy, almost inevitable. This thing, Bloom — it’s walking toward you, druid cloak dragging through the sand.
The album’s essential contrast is between the earthy and the ephemeral, the glitz and the grit, between Scally, who represents the cotton candy and the merry-go-round, and Legrand, who represents the slump-shouldered kid smoking menthols behind the funnel-cake stand. When Scally and Legrand released Teen Dream in 2010, their music started to get Fleetwood Mac comparisons; and the contrast fits Bloom even better. Like Christie McVie and Stevie Nicks, Legrand is a singer whose Vaseline-smeared ballads — particularly songs like “Wishes” and “Other People”— combine an air of vulnerability with a core of intense toughness and regret.
Did you hear, by the way, that Instagram got sold to Facebook? Instagram, that photo-sharing service where people make all their pictures look like oversaturated Polaroids? Did you hear it got sold for one billion dollars? In the words of the rapper Yelawolf, “That’s a real whole chicken.” Indie culture’s affection for nostalgic, weather-beaten, melancholy stuff doesn’t just belong to indie culture anymore, but to your mom, your uncle, your normal neighbors.
Minus the billion dollars, Instagram isn’t all that different from Bloom: a conflict-free zone where beauty comes first, and the innocence and nostalgia are a lot more controlled and well-engineered then the frolicking lets on. Did you know that if your photos promote self-abuse, Instagram will disable your account? Beach House can empathize — self-abuse is just so angsty, and angst is just so passé. Bloom is a gorgeous, firm album with very little at stake. That it’s so good is a testament to a weird lesson the band has been sketching out for awhile now: Perhaps the most effective way to avoid failing is to never seem like you’re trying too hard.