Beirut’s Zach Condon can best be described as an international daydreamer. His sentimental reveries carry him across political and temporal borders. He has sipped egg creams in Brighton Beach while reminiscing about his lost love in the old country, and he has holed himself in a Pigalle loft with a carton of Gauloises and a photo-album of his last affair. He has tried to vacation in Oaxaca, drinking mezcal and playing with the locals in a dingy cantina, only to be haunted by the timeless specter of romantic loss. Each album allowed Condon to imagine and reinterpret a regional folk style to tell heartbreaking stories of loss and remembrance. The musical idioms—Baltic waltzes, Gallic crooning, Zapotec brass—were selected and deployed for their exotic melancholy. Despite the indisputable very-goodness of Gulag Orkestar, Condon has painted Beirut into a corner by the end of March of the Zapotec experiment. Interesting as his career had been up to that point, it had the curious effect of pigeonholing him as an aesthetic imperialist with few ideas of his own. But his latest album The Rip Tide doesn’t find Condon daydreaming in another folk idiom; instead, he fully unveils the pop sense that his world music appropriation has scaffolded for much of his career.
The Rip Tide is the most listener-friendly Beirut album because it feels instantly recognizable. It isn’t so much a growth in Condon’s songwriting; it’s more of a refinement. Everything that he’s done well—stirring instrumental passages, plaintively sad lyrics—is present in shorter, more focused bursts. From the aching “East Harlem” to the rousing “Payne’s Bay,” The Rip Tide uses Beirut’s familiar aesthetic to illustrate a slightly more contemporary sound. Even with overly precious plodders like “The Rip Tide” and “The Peacock,” the album manages to pull together enough singularly great songs to prevent it from sounding like a retread. The spritely “Santa Fe” represents a maturation of his vaguely electronic Realpeople moniker, and the warm melancholy of “East Harlem” is a full flowering of the pop sensibility hiding beneath his best songs to date. And the tender “Goshen” is exactly what Condon wanted initially from Flying Club Cup but failed to successfully create.
Though he still sounds a little like Jonathan Safran Foer’s favorite band (how that boy wrote Everything is Illuminated without Gulag Orkestar is beyond me!), Condon has taken the best lessons from his previous albums to create this singular declaration as a band. Everything that Beirut has been moving toward finds its clearest expression on The Rip Tide. Which I guess means that this is Beirut’s best album, though I’m still partial to the hip anachronisms of Gulag Orkestar. I loved the drunken brass veering from one melody to another without pausing long enough to constitute any kind of definitive statement, but I’m more than happy to have Condon focus his energies on crafting these exquisitely sad little marches on The Rip Tide.
Rating: 7.5 / 10