Merely a few months after I started this site, I deemed an album by Beach House to be “the most atmospherically beautiful debut of the year.” Although slightly rough around the edges, their debut showed a band on the brink of something special. This was back in 2006, and seeing the Baltimore-based duo grow into the masterminds behind the stunning Teen Dream has further convinced me of their rare maturity. With this, multi-instrumentalist Alex Scally and vocalist/organist Victoria Legrand may in fact have taken one of the largest leaps in music over the past several years, which is all the more respectable considering they did not significantly alter their style or image. True success is measured by sincerity and talent, so it would make little sense to toy with other genres if one is intent in their ways and already critically acclaimed. Beach House’s 2008 follow-up, Devotion, realized just this and decided to evolve from the debut as opposed to turning over a new leaf. An insatiable hunger for success, while artistically healthy, can be detrimental in its approach if it results in unnatural stylistic hesitation. Beach House’s third album, Teen Dream, is remarkable not only because of its sheer quality and consistency, but also in its willingness to stick with what Beach House are most natural at doing.
The word “natural” is often used objectively in the sciences, but in the arts it tends to pertain to an indescribable feeling garnered by witnessing both sincerity and skill from an artist. When something fits superbly in music, we tend to describe the effect as providing a “natural flow” or the artist as being “a natural”. The question then is, do so-called naturals improve their skills, acquire new ones, or do both? Teen Dream answers this in an interesting manner. Beach House have maintained their original sound, but modifications in production make their music more vividly effective than ever. There are is more emphasis on instrumental variety, crisper sounding production, and an exuberant confidence that results in monumental success, all while sounding distinctively like the duo we already know and love. There is still a sense of enjoyable ambiguity surrounding the duo though, mainly attributed to Legrand’s uniquely powerful vocals. Her voice is very fascinating in this release, emitting more confidence than on any of their prior albums. She finds rare pitch in her voice that is not relative to male or female, which is so remarkably unique that some first-time listeners may have no clue who is singing.
Beach House have always been associated with subtle brilliance, which is what Teen Dream applies well. The opening track, “Zebra”, is reminiscent of old Beach House tracks like “Saltwater” where brilliantly constructed mood reigned most. The chorus itself is not capable of much variation, unlike the explosive choruses in “Walk in the Park” or “Better Times”, but it remains a very strong effort. It does well to establish a new methodology for the group, which clearly involves crisper and less rigid efforts that rely less on droning reverb and more on melody and instrumentation. It is not waving its arms in your face, but “Zebra” quietly plays like a gem of an opener with the warmth of Legrand’s mixing cohesively with Scally’s guitar tremolos to create a trademark Beach House performance. Singles like “Used to Be” and “Norway” are richer in their sound and instrumental intricacy, specifically in the backing vocal harmonics used in “Norway” over the quickly paced guitar arpeggio. The backing vocals are very light and caressing, which makes the arrival of Legrand’s leading voice as a musky and powerful enigma that much better. “Don’t you know it’s true,” she sings, dragging out the “true” with her vocal versatility to touch nearly every pitch on the scale. The melodic variation on each track is also breathtaking; it is usually heard in the last minute or so of every track. When “Norway” succumbs to an alternate bridge in its final minute it is one of the many chills this album will place upon your spine. Like the sudden shift in the organ’s melody during the conclusion of “Lover of Mine”, the transition is so welcomed because of its precise and valuable addition.
“Lover of Mine” is fascinating specifically in Legrand’s revolving array of organs, which seems to alternate as the lead with slight percussion and muted guitar chords. The lead organ that appears in the chorus certainly has a Far Eastern vibe, making comparisons could the funk-soul experiments of Chaka Khan or the dreamy pop of Fleetwood Mac pretty agreeable. Either way, the dominance of organs and wistful melodic lore is strongly reminiscent of the ’80s synth-pop movement that momentarily took hold of the mainstream. As far as the latter comparison goes, vocal resemblances to Stevie Nicks are bound to spread with Legrand’s increased accentuation and variation throughout Teen Dream. Their pitch and emission of hooks differ dramatically, but both vocalists’ deliveries pack a stellar punch that rides on quivering seductiveness and complementary harmonics. All surprising variations are welcome, like when an entirely new organ arrangement emerges in “Lover of Mine” to masterfully conclude an effort that succeeds in both heartfelt nostalgia and contemporary relevance. The track itself is illustrative of lust and youthful fun in which consequences are of no concern. It finds a suitable reprieve between the tragic “Used to Be” and the more optimistic “Better Times”, suggesting that Teen Dream encompasses more thematic depth than it may initially let on.
Few want to listen to a break-up album past high school, but Teen Dream is a different type of ordeal. As the title may suggest, the album interprets the feelings of unparalleled triumph and obliterated desires from the perspective of one in the process of maturation. Two of the strongest Beach House efforts to date, “Walk in the Park” and “Better Days”, showcase this beautifully. The former is awashed in a shoegaze-like glow, accentuated by glistening keyboard tremolos and graceful guitar licks. This also appears as the strongest vocal performance of Legrand’s career, which is saying quite a bit. The repeating keyboard melody only makes her presence more prominent and important. She alternates between a psychedelically subdued chorus and anthemic chorus of soaring synths in a way that leaves me in awe, particularly because her variation is breathtakingly precise. Scally has a lot of fantastic ideas throughout the album like this and Legrand coordinates perfectly with them, producing a truly collaborative effort that relied on the creative genius of both members. “Better Days” is just as perfect, its inspiration being somewhat rooted in John Lennon’s Imagine with its delicate, Eastern-inspired vein of pop. Their complementary effects of these two absolutely gorgeous songs creates for great thematic tension; “Walk in the Park” values true love over all material possessions, while “Better Days” appears as the re-acquisition of this ideology after finding greener pastures.
Despite the success of every track on the album, some tracks fall shorter than others. “10 Mile Radio” is more a display of vocal power than songwriting brilliance, the latter of which most of the songs on Teen Dream have. This one seems to stutter a bit, complemented by a somewhat disappointing chorus containing a screeching synth and muted arpeggios. It has plenty of mood and anguish with Legrand’s vocals generating a demanding presence over Scally’s subtle instrumentation, but never catches up to its initial potential. Beach House have the ability to make anything sound good, even an untuned piano, so faults like these are purely through comparative songwriting. The last three songs on the album appear to emphasize the lyrical construction of the album; “Real Love” singularly employs the same piano progression for most of the song and the beautiful “Take Care” is similarly coherent in its glow of ascending synths. “10 Mile Radio” and “Real Love” are the only hiccups to speak of though, and this is just in comparison to the other spectacles of brilliance on the album. It must be hard to be a decent track on an album full of outstanding ones.
Beach House’s Teen Dream does the same thing that Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion did to the 2009’s year in muic. Being one of the few music masterpieces of the decade, it set a climate of high expectations for the following year. Whether or not 2010 will live up to the towering Teen Dream remains the question, but what is certain is the legitimacy of Beach House’s newest as the first truly great album of the 2010s. Calling something a masterpiece always seems premature, and this stunning album’s fate will tell of that. But when looking at the sheer consistency, stylistic beauty, and pure awe-inspiring skill put into Teen Dream, I would be shocked if its fate was any different.