Almost from its inception as a subgenre, dream pop has been undergirded by a fundamental irony: music that supposedly captures the indefinite, ineffable drift of sleep has largely hewed rigidly close to a formula for nearly four decades. It’s a formula that Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally masterfully replicated on their early records as Beach House, peaking with the one-two punch of instant classics Teen Dream and Bloom. Yet for several years now, the duo has challenged itself to change up their style. Depression Cherry found them experimenting with proggier song structures and sonic weight, while Thank Your Lucky Stars reimagined the band as something close to an honest-to-God rock band, albeit one playing school dances in purgatory for infinity. After cleaning out the vaults with a b-sides collection, Beach House went to record their seventh album with far more elaborate plans in mind, setting out to make music with no thought as to continuity with their previous work, nor even its suitability for live performance. The result in their most unpredictable record, and yet another bold evolution for the duo.

“Dark Spring” kicks off the album with a booming drum roll from guest James Barone that sounds completely removed from the elegiac openers of records past; even the kick drum that starts Thank Your Lucky Stars has the dry click of simple programming, folding it into the bedroom pop sound of the band’s larger discography. As Scally’s synth blazes organ-like chords, Legrand sings distended lines about the cosmos, her lilting voice shot through with a heretofore unseen strain of dispassion, reflecting both the beauty and horrific isolation of space. That tone recurs in “L’Inconnue,” which stacks Legrand’s vocals into a psychedelic self-chorus tethered to Earth by Scally’s gentle guitar riff. As Legrand overlaps herself, she crafts a song about romantic desire that sounds closer to a demented nursery rhyme, complete with some stanzas in basic French that resemble the kind of childlike songs that one is taught in introductory classes. Trippy solar voyages and sing-song torch ballads sound like elegant, relaxed subjects, but the duo’s use of overdubs and space lend darker tones to the band’s longstanding atmosphere of blissed-out longing.

Such moods befit an album borne of Legrand and Scally’s reactions to the tumult of the last two years. Explicit references to politics are absent, but the duo aim to capture some of the ambient malaise and fear that has infected wider social life. “Lemon Glow” adds dissonant bursts of noise to the classic Beach House sound of basic click track and breathy vocals, and the lyrics convey defeatism in lines like “Read my fortune too/ Tell me what you see/ Cross it like a T/ It’s all the same to me.” By the same token, the lovelorn quality of so many of the pair’s lyrics are unexpectedly bracing and desperate, with Legrand intoning, “See this state I’m in/ Is crawling in my skin.” “Black Car” similarly seeks shelter from the surrounding storm with frank intensity, infusing the cold synth lines with matching despair: “We want to go inside the cold/ It’s like a tomb, but it’s something to hold.” Destabilizing emotions like anxiety and desire have always been a part of Beach House’s repertoire, but there’s something darker about these songs, the dreamy distance suddenly gaining the sharp psychological clarity of a nightmare.

For all the somber energy, however, 7 also finds the band significantly expanding their songcraft. “Dive” begins like a standard Beach House track, all whirring, floating synths until abruptly morphing into a guitar-driven post-punk anthem about halfway through. It’s the first Beach House song that could set heads banging. “Girl of the Year” is a slice of outright synthpop, layering multiple loops and patterns into major-key bliss, albeit played at a slurred, sleepy tempo. The album’s true showstopper, though, is “Drunk in LA,” a narrative song about a washed up star drowning her sorrows and reflecting on unfulfilled dreams and faded pleasures. Moaning synths occasionally roar with spikes of frustration, and the track slowly crescendos around Legrand’s detached, defeated vocals, capped off by a mournful guitar solo that stumbles drunkenly over the synths.

Scally’s looping patterns and Legrand’s soaring but soothing voice will always make Beach House a transportive listen, but 7 is nonetheless a major departure for the duo. That they manage to retain their fundamental identity is perhaps the album’s most impressive attribute. Listen to the way that they rope EVOL-era Sonic Youth into their dreamy vibe on “Pay No Mind,” or the peacefulness that counterbalances the paranoid energy of the Chromatics-esque throwback Italo disco of “Woo.” By the time they close out with “Last Ride,” which takes the most traditionally Beach House arrangement and puts it in a taffy pull to stretch it to seven lugubrious minutes of anguish (and more than a dash of hope), Scally and Legrand manage to sound rejuvenated despite having yet to display signs of slowing down. Teen Dream and Bloom will likely always remain the pair’s canonical entries, but by some margin, this is their most accomplished record to date and the latest proof that Beach House will go down as the finest, boldest and most singular dream pop act since the Cocteau Twins.

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