Review Summary: Devotion is dreary, but it's also wonderfully melodic and memorable. Beach House establish a rainy-day vibe and happily wallow in it.
Beach House always sounded charmingly burnt out, even before they were sampled by The Weeknd, played some of the biggest music festivals worldwide, and were canonized into Alt/Indie playlist ubiquity. On their self-titled debut, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally assembled creaky folk songs from slowcore guitars and nursing home organs, Legrand moaning about lying down in apple orchards, waiting in Mahjong parlors, and letters written but left unsent. It was an unhurried and contemplative album, not outright depressive but with a certain resignation to their country-tinged dream pop—but as assured as Beach House were with their impressively fully-formed sound, the songs tended to run together as it went on, at times their moody restraint bordering uncomfortably on lethargy (as on the plodding “Auburn and Ivory”, or the nondescript “House on the Hill”). Nevertheless, it was a solid and promising effort.
takes the basic approach of their debut and offers up better, catchier songs, slightly cleaned-up production, and more confident performances for a small but crucial step in their evolution. They draw from the same limited pool of instruments – dusty organs, spaced-out electric guitar, and trudging percussion loops abound—but demonstrate a more tasteful and mature approach to structures and arrangements. “Wedding Bell’ opens the album with the most plainly upbeat song, galloping through multiple bridges and guitar breaks, its four minutes more exuberant than anything on their debut. “Astronaut” eschews traditional verse/chorus structure and instead continuously builds over three minutes, with light keyboard and overdriven guitar treading over a shimmering organ until Legrand’s voice ascends for a chilling, beautiful climax that crumbles into a dejected coda. “Holy Dances” moves through time signature changes in its country-leaning chorus, which opens up a doe-eyed romanticism after a dreary opening. Many of Devotion
’s songs propel through multiple, purposeful sections where older material might have wallowed indecisively; simply, the songwriting has improved greatly.
Legrand’s voice and melodies have taken a tremendous leap in quality as well. Her singing on their debut was charmingly stilted, but she sounds much more confident here, her voice taking centre stage rather than being buried in a murky mix like a rhythm guitar part. “Heart of Chambers” isn’t one of the better songs on the album due to its sluggish verses, but it’s elevated by the impassioned and assured vocals in the chorus, almost reaching power-ballad intensity. On the superb “Turtle Island”, Legrand’s sweetly melodic crooning acts as a balm to the creeping, subdued organ and guitar, resulting in a weirdly catchy dirge that might represent my Platonic ideal of a Beach House song. All throughout her lyrics are suggestive, never revealing much in the way of emotions but interspersing oddly potent images—fistfuls of wildflowers, pennies thrown down a well, bread and bonnets—alongside recurrent, inviting mentions of homes and rooms, open doors and gates.
Almost all of the songs are quite strong taken on their own, but as on their debut, the overall lack of sonic variety can blur some of the record’s 44 minutes. Even ten-plus years after first listening to this album, when I come back to revisit it I initially have to squint my brain to remember “All the Years” or “D.A.R.L.I.N.G.”, songs that I know are enjoyable if maybe not favourites. Scally and Legrand are so (I would say admirably) committed to their greyscale sound that they might have overplayed their hand: most everything aside from country-tinged opener “Wedding Bell” and the first few minutes of the similarly flavoured “Home Again”, which closes the album, is decidedly downcast. Attentions could start to wander towards the end of record, as the sixth/seventh/eighth sluggish song with organ and plucked electric guitar in a row makes itself known. This hazy stretch would likely include their cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last a Long Time”, an excessively dour take that almost succumbs to self-parody and slumps blandly towards the end of the album. It stands out as the obvious track that could have been dropped.
While it's maybe a bit repetitive, Devotion
is still probably my favourite Beach House album. It retains the captivating, homespun atmosphere of their debut, while the increased sense of melody provides a glimpse of the more open embrace of pop that befitted the band so well on Teen Dream
, the markers of their meteoric rise to the Indie elites. Legrand and Scally would never really stray too far from their early style—2015’s Thank Your Lucky Stars
especially felt like a deliberate return to their roots. But there’s a certain unbothered magic to Devotion
: a wonderfully insular quality that, perhaps, might not be as easy to tap into after festival-sized crowds and Pitchfork accolades.