Until now, Beirut’s Zach Condon has come across like some sort of musical Relic Hunter. Clearly talented, he’s nevertheless appeared intent on museum-ing everything from the Balkan folk heard on 2006’s Gulag Orkestar to the French chanson of 2007’s The Flying Club Cup or Mexican brass of 2009’s March of the Zapotech EP. Then there was the geography too: if he wasn’t singing about spending nights with prostitutes from Marseille or sending postcards from Italy; he was titling songs “Bratislava”, “Nantes”, “Venice” or “The Rhineland”. Even the album’s artwork featured sepia-tinged photographs – no doubt lifted from the archives of some outlying Post-War image collection.
The music was great, for sure: but it did all just feel that little bit impersonal; especially coming from a bedroom-stewing American youngster with stage fright.
If Condon not being his own man was a problem for Beirut though, it seems The Riptide has emphatically addressed it. The cover is conspicuously plain, whilst the whole album feels like a singer dropping masks and revealing himself. The distinctive use of brass and strings remain, but something’s different – “Left a bag on bones / A trail of stones / For me to find my way home,” his voice cartwheels at the beginning of “Vagabond” – and it’s hard to argue against saying that that’s exactly what has happened. Here we have “Santa Fe”, “East Harlem” and “Payne’s Bay” in place of those European cities of before. Indeed, the latter – “Santa Fe” – is actually his hometown, and is positively electro by Beirut’s usual uke-hugging standards; it’s pop hooks and voltaic flourishes make it more a “Sweet Home Alabama” celebration than a “Ghost Town” style lament.
In fact, there’s little doubt that this is Beirut’s most pop orientated and uplifting release to date. “East Harlem” (“another rose wilts in East Harlem”) bounces along brilliantly; whilst the waltzing, fairground ride-ish, “Headstrong today, I am headstrong” refrain at the end of “Payne’s Bay” is vintage Beirut. But even the more plaintive moments succeed here: the beautiful “Goshen” (“You’re on in five / It’s time to rise or fall”) sounds like the sort of piano-driven chamber pop Antony and The Johnsons have made careers out of; and the sparse Bon Iver (QRO album review)-esque “The Peacock” shows an impressive lyrical maturity that wasn’t necessarily in evidence before.
Unhappily, there are only nine tracks here – with a total playing time not much exceeding half an hour. But no one should feel short-changed by this album… because The Riptide is clearly Beirut’s most coherent, developed and accomplished work yet.
MP3 Stream: “Goshen”