Depression Cherry, the fifth studio album by Indie "dream pop" band Beach House, is both cavernous and expansive. Whilst listening, I am at times trapped within my own skull, and at others I dwell in a boundless realm of dreams and unborn territories, of which I am both sovereign and the slave. What is fascinating about the experience is that I am never quite certain as to the geography of the space I aurally occupy, and this psychological uncertainty is mentally oppressive, yes, but mostly it’s gripping. To use the words of the band’s lyricist herself, Victoria Legrand, with regards to “10:37,” the album’s midmost track: “That song has got that kernel of incredible space…. And that vibe informed the whole thing.”
There is one song in particular, however, which I’d like to focus on—one that uses this almost tangibly physical quality to Beach House’s music to exhilarating effect. Album-opener “Levitation” is a smooth passage through the sprawling citadel of the mind, save for one distinctly abrupt turn that comes at around the 2:26 mark, where Legrand turns her gaze toward the oncoming gales of the future, that unborn epoch of wilderness and Light. The change is seismically unexpected, just like the great, sweeping pivot of adolescence to which Legrand’s lyrics allude, and for which all who are overtaken by its excruciating splendour are, where it counts, unprepared. But Legrand seems to have faced toward this horizon with solemnity, her stance one charged and expecting: “The branches of the trees / They will hang lower now,” she sings, and rather ominously, as the mists that had surrounded her voice leading up to that moment suddenly converge and swirl around her, like a battalion of ghosts. The sound is a portending doom, the colour of gathering storm-clouds or the eye of a hurricane.
The period of youth, however, need not be feared in its approach; for the Light is coming thence. And, yet, while it certainly carries with it the weight of such tremendous possibility, there is in every moment of life this same excitement, this same vibration in the air. Adolescence stands as merely a heightened representation of the incredible potentialities latent within all of existence, and therefore serves as more of a metaphor for this broader, all-enduring fact of creation: that life is an eternally impending experience, a future that forever hovers upon the glow of the horizon.
Legrand herself has said: “I like getting older and wiser and seeing how things change.” And yet again: “I think time is your friend and also not your friend, but I choose to think of it as a friend…. But I… also don't think it matters how old or young you are.” “I think it's interesting how time affects everybody and everything in the universe.”
Such explicit admission of the degree to which Time dominates their ideas frames Beach House’s “Levitation” as a most subtly subversive ode thereto. Indeed, Legrand’s forecast in the track, that “You will grow too quick / Then you will get over it,” while at first a tad disheartening, begins to reveal itself as an assurance of sorts, for it dismisses the easy despair which seems to throng the heart with age. To quote her again: “As you get older you realise that nothing lasts forever. It's not depressing, but it does make moments more intense.”
Our unswerving allegiance to the future, however, comes often at the expense of the “now.” As Legrand said in one of her interviews: “I think things are changing constantly, and I think being present and being yourself is getting a lot harder for people.” There are a host of songs that come to mind when I think of this theme, that we are so rarely fully present in our lives because the whole of our experience(s) beckon toward the future of the sky. “City Middle” by The National, which takes us through a metropolis as it follows two characters in frenzied search of sexual release, only for one of them to crack, at the end of the song, saying, almost to herself, “I think I'm like Tennessee Williams / I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn't kick in”—this is one such example. So is Marika Hackman’s “Plans,” which is effectively a most gracefully damning critique of our collective penchant for relegating our lives to the future: “I’m not a liar, a maker of plans / Who will be lost when the boat hits the land? / I will hold out my hand.” "The Great Ascension" by Justin Rutledge frames this deeply-rooted longing of ours in more transcendent terms, and indeed bears striking resemblance to "Levitation" when one considers lines from the latter such as "As our bodies lift up slowly." These all themselves remind me so much of the final lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning—— / So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I could go on, but perhaps it was Alan Watts who said it most pithily: “If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves, vanish into the abyss of death.”
The question that arises, therefore, is, how can we ensure that we are, to the fullest extent, embracing our lives, and not enslaved in our obedience to the possible? The answer lies in discrete places, and has taken many peculiar forms.
Self-entitled “master procrastinator” Tim Urban ended his TED Talk with this knowing accusation: “I don't think non-procrastinators exist. That's right—I think all of you are procrastinators.” He continued, saying that “We need to think about what we're really procrastinating on, because everyone is procrastinating on something in life,” alluding to that one, final deadline we all have: our physical death(s). Alain de Botton of The School of Life counselled that the confident bear in mind the ephemerality of things and use this knowledge to spur them on to greater heights: “Death is a necessary thought too. We should use it not to further sadden us, but to scare us, fruitfully, into taking some action.” And Steve Jobs, in his now-famous Stanford commencement address, referred explicitly to this invigorating power of the thought of death: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
This notion that we are all going to die and that everything ends there does not, however, always lead to ennobling thoughts and deeds. Unfortunately, at its most extreme, this understanding manifests itself in purest hedonism, which can often take the form of a deliberate and arrogant self-interest, and can therefrom even harden into a jagged and brittle cynicism. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, addressing the Theosophical Society of Northwestern University in 1912, said: “The conception of annihilation is a factor in human degradation, a cause of human debasement and lowliness, a source of human fear and abjection. It has been conducive to the dispersion and weakening of human thought, whereas the realization of existence and continuity has upraised man to sublimity of ideals, established the foundations of human progress and stimulated the development of heavenly virtues; therefore, it behooves man to abandon thoughts of nonexistence and death, which are absolutely imaginary, and see himself ever-living, everlasting in the divine purpose of his creation. He must turn away from ideas which degrade the human soul so that day by day and hour by hour he may advance upward and higher to spiritual perception of the continuity of the human reality. If he dwells upon the thought of nonexistence, he will become utterly incompetent; with weakened willpower his ambition for progress will be lessened and the acquisition of human virtues will cease.”
Religion, while refuting this idea of impermanence insofar as it asserts that our souls, as distinct from our physical bodies, are not subject to that most great impermanence inherent in all things, has still, interestingly, sought to harness the power of this “most great deadline,” if you will. For instance, there is this passage from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh which is a perfect summation of this idea: “Night hath succeeded day, and day hath succeeded night, and the hours and moments of your lives have come and gone, and yet none of you hath, for one instant, consented to detach himself from that which perisheth. Bestir yourselves, that the brief moments that are still yours may not be dissipated and lost. Even as the swiftness of lightning your days shall pass, and your bodies shall be laid to rest beneath a canopy of dust. What can ye then achieve? How can ye atone for your past failure?”
It is our responsibility to seize the reins of our minds and reel them into the now. As folk artists Saintseneca, on their song “Sleeper Hold,” sang: “Heaven is a chemical / Swimming laps round the bowl of your skull / But tucked into your subtle frame / The keys to the kingdom lie in wait.” And just as Legrand has also said: "Sometimes the big moment that will change your life or the thing that you need the most is right in front of you and actually right inside of you—that ultimate change.” “Your life is happening, and this is your life.” “…but ultimately if you listen to yourself, and you understand your work and the nature of it and the force behind it, the key to your growth is inside of you.” "The only still point in the turning world is yourself. That’s all you have.”
“Levitation” forces upon the soul an ultimatum of existential proportions in this regard, namely: are we willing to do abandon the ease of mindless living and go on with our thoughts entirely transfixed upon today? I could come up with an abundance of excuses as to why I can’t right now—but Beach House are one step ahead of my brain: “There is no right time,” asserts Legrand. Her voice soothes just as much as it punctures, like that of any loved one, of anything cherished. The crackling mystery at the edges of the song seem to whisper of this chord, humming and alive with portents as they flutter in and out of awareness.
As Legrand has herself said: "For us, Depression Cherry is a color, a place, a feeling, an energy… that describes the place you arrive as you move through the endlessly varied trips of existence….” She also sings on “Levitation” that “There’s a place I want to take you / When the unknown will surround you.” The song seems to ground itself in this “place” to which Beach House are referring, this flash of eternity which is ours to grasp and to behold, to savour and relinquish. Even the title simply sings of such contrasts. Depression Cherry is simultaneously that violent flavour at the heart of all existence and, yet, the dreary fog which seems to eclipse it; the outcry that escapes the sweltering core of oblivion; the immaculate fruit of a desolate existence's tree. "Levitation” is Beach House’s grounding us in the totality of our experience whilst simultaneously heaving us from the dream of our religion. The choice remains ours: Whereto shall we set our affections? To what end shall we direct the burning impulses of our souls?