When Zach Condon arrived in 2006 with his debut album Gulag Orkestar, he presented pretty much a fully formed musical vision, however left-field it was. At a time when indie music was beginning to fall to the proliferation of hyphenated sub-genres, Condon was offering perhaps the most bizarre of them all: Balkan-indie (or, call it what you want). Whether it sounded like Eastern European circus music or the second coming of Neutral Milk Hotel, it was clear the young man had brass.
Since then Condon has explored several corners of the musical globe, dabbling in French chanson, Mexican funeral dirges, and shimmering synth pop. He executed each with the familiarity of an old hand. He sang like Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, or Yves Montand; his song catalogue read more like a book of postcards.
One thing that was (and remains) easy to lose in this maelstrom of world travelling is how young Condon really is. Speaking to the New York Times Zach Condon explained that the impetus for the stripped down sound of Beirut’s third full-length The Rip Tide was he had begun to feel like “a dilettante with instruments.” Really Condon seemed more like the musical Max Fisher, precocious and preternaturally talented; posturing like a man twice his age who has a taste in fine wines and exotic literature.
This time around Condon seems to personify the Dylan lyric: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Condon’s songwriting and palette have matured into a wonderfully adolescent focusing of pop. His melodic turns, always his strongest asset, are now forefronted rather than buried beneath horn swells and string sections. Condon even mined the catalogues of his youth, recycling a shelved melody he wrote when he was 17 for the song “East Harlem.”
The geographical musings of songs like “East Harlem” and “Santa Fe” (his home town) continue his spirit-of-the-flaneur observations that have become his lyrical bedrock. Yet these songs bear a noticeably more western influence than his previous works. They sport restrained, sleek pop arrangements, and mostly discard the baroque brass-and-string ornamentation of Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup. That’s not to say that they’ve dumbed themselves down; accessibility does not equal lack of artistic vision. Condon’s songwriting is at its strongest here. The album title is an appropriate metaphor -- Condon channels his ocean of influences into a formidably focused current. The attentive orchestration still remains, and those horns that debuted on Gulag Orkestar still feature heavily, just less so.
“Santa Fe” especially will take those familiar with Beirut by surprise. This is a straightforward pop confection; it could be on the radio. The driving synthesizer and percussion provide a solid foundation on which Condon builds his most hummable melody. The theatricality of his earlier vocal work is still there, it just appears in service of tighter, less meandering, melodies.
One of my favorite things about Beirut was this neat little trick they would often execute about ¾ of the way through a song. There they would strip away most of the instrumentation and introduce a nifty melody that was often the strongest part of the track. From there they would build the layers back up to a slow, strong crescendo. Here that trick is watered down a bit. You can still find it in songs like "Payne’s Bay" or "Vagabond" but the contrast, and thus the effect of the coda, is diminished with the classic Beirut ¾ feeling spread across the whole song.
The closest Beirut ancestor to The Rip Tide is probably the Realpeople Holland EP (Realpeople being, coincidentally, the name of Condon's first recording project). The steady, synthy constructions share much with Condon’s most recent popular music offering. The album's ergonomic redesign makes the running time seem considerably shorter than it is. Though at just over thirty minutes The Rip Tide clocks in at a similar length to Gulag Orkestar, it seems to breeze by in half as much time as its older sibling.
If you found yourself in the camp that considered Gulag Orkestar (Or TFCC for that matter) to be “Eastern European circus music crap,” then now is the time to give Beirut a second chance. If you count yourself among those who loved Beirut from the beginning, well then, buy the album obviously -- there’s a good chance it will be your favorite.