Beach House have written four albums of absolutely lovely dream-pop that threatens to overwhelm you with it’s pretiness, but if there’s one song that divides their fans, it’s ‘Norway’. Standing out at the top end of their breakaway success from 2010, Teen Dream, it’s perhaps the only one of their tracks that I would save space on a digital music player for, because I think it’s hopelessly romantic and I’m hopelessly romantic about hopelessly romantic songs. ‘Norway’ makes me feel like the seas are opening beneath the Titanic, and I’m out on the edge with Kate Winslet. It’s like being so high that you don’t ever remember not being high. Through a combination of effects, production and execution, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally took a great concept and then drowned it in itself, ending up with something that sounds far more like My Bloody Valentine, soaked in its own desire, than the light indie-fare they’d done previously. And the fans reacted pretty quickly. Head to any streaming service or reviews page and you’ll still see the knives come out for the outlier that is this Track Three: “I always have to skip this track on the album. Makes me feel drunk. In a bad way, like I need to throw up”, reads one. “I agree – this song also makes me feel extremely nauseated; like I was seasick or bad merry-go-round. I can’t listen to it; but the ENTIRE rest of the album is on heavy rotation and a great favorite,” says another. Now, I have some of the worst motion sickness you’ve ever seen in a twenty-something, but this song inspires none of those feelings in me. So why does ‘Norway’ throw so many Beach House devotees, and could they be wrong about it?
I knew a girl once who was head-over-heels for Beach House. She told me that she liked to listen to them to when she was going to sleep, when she walked to work as an English teacher and especially when she had sex. Because this girl was hyper-intelligent and I was very much intimidated by both her brains and her looks, I decided to check out the band for myself at our annual Laneway Festival some years ago. It was in the lead-up to this show that I began hearing this one song everywhere; in the office where I used to work, on TV shows, and in bars. Because I’m a relentless discographer and I always start from the beginning with artists I don’t know, I hadn’t gotten anywhere near Teen Dream before I’d fallen in love with ‘Norway’. And when I came back to this woman, excited to tell her that I had similar feelings about her famous band, she shook her head. “Oh no, not ‘Norway.’ I like the chorus, but I can’t deal with that verse. It’s like the guitar is off or something.’ And because I love arguing about music more than anything in the world, I missed out on sleeping with someone quite exceptional. And now I’m not even sure if I was right, anyway.
The bit that freaks people out about ‘Norway’ isn’t actually a guitar, so far as I can tell. What I mean is, it’s not the primary guitar part. It’s this weird second, effected layer underneath, which is somehow optimised to sound almost exactly like whichever Casio Ms Legrand picked up from a Baltimore secondhand store. While she keeps her chords in line with the flow of the verse, Scally slips and slides all over the place, falling up and down around the root note and never actually hitting it. The reason people feel ‘seasick’ when they hear it is that despite the melodic arc and Legrand’s progression, there’s a definite feeling that you’ve been cast adrift, and can’t cling to a fixed point anywhere. It’s the aural equivalent of constantly being about to fall off a tightrope, which is an excellent musical trip that doesn’t really last that long before the sunburst chorus harmonies come in and everything is back to normal, but it’s enough to do the damage. Just as we try to steer clear of positions that will affect our equilibrium, so too do our ears instinctively shy away from what Beach House are doing here, even if it makes sense contextually. I happen to think that this woozy insecure floating makes the piece what it is and shows Beach House’s versatility, but it’s an attitude not many people share. Some still maintain that this was an accident that occurred during recording (albeit in every verse) and that gives them reason not to listen to it. But they should. It signifies everything that there is to know about being unsure, young and on the brink of some very tumultuous forms of change. Some day, somewhere, she’ll appreciate that. But she still won’t have sex with me, probably.
Beach House – ‘Norway’