Zach Condon’s life sounds like an indie film, and so does his music: artsy high school dropout from New Mexico abandons his stifling southwestern town for exotic, romantic Paris, plays in a Macedonian brass band and weaves together a debut album by age 19, thus kicking off a career of foreign-influenced and melodramatic songwriting. His music’s hallmarks—a taste for brass, a proclivity for French music, his rich and sonorous voice—give it a sense of wandering, melancholy pomp and circumstance that would make the perfect soundtrack for the next Jonathan Safran Foer book that gets made into a film starring Elijah Wood and Gogol Bordello’s gypsy punk leader Eugene Hütz.
Compared to the unrestrained big band sound of songs from his last LP, The Flying Club Cup, Condon’s latest full-length effort The Rip Tide maintains all the staples of Beirut-y music without its predecessor’s army of horns and strings and bells and whistles. Still overwhelmingly emotional, still bittersweet, still nostalgic and balladeering, The Rip Tide is obviously a product of Condon’s errant and fantastical soul, but the songs’ intricacies are constructed around simple, bare melodies built from scratch and embellished with the the sounds he loves (namely tubas, French horns, trumpets, trombones and pump organs). Often the songs start with straightforward, driving melodies that build into the sort of epic noisy carols of Condon’s earlier work, as in the title track and the uptempo homecoming chant “Vagabond.”
The Rip Tide is set apart from past records also due to its fascination with familiar places. Along with the ornately overwrought arsenal of musicians Condon employed to nearly overpopulate his last album, gone is the spirit of utter fantasy that charged it, to be replaced by a navel-gazing turn towards the cities he knows. There’s “Sante Fe” and “East Harlem,” both strong pop efforts with angsty lyrics, homeward themes in songs like “Goshen” and “Vagabond,” and the touch of a Mariachi band where once there was only Francophilia. While Condon made a conscious effort to make The Rip Tide more understated than his first two LPs, he still manages to stretch his wings into new territory; “Santa Fe” is perhaps the most eclectic track on the album, a synth-y and buoyant song that carves a path between indie ballad and romantic pop song.
Romance is to Beirut as swag is to Lil B, which is to say that Beirut’s music is founded upon, made up of, infused with, and mostly concerned with romanticism in the Kant/Schopenhauer sense. Condon’s songs have always been flooded with emotion that sound both deliriously pretty and endlessly sad or foreboding, and The Rip Tide is no exception. “Goshen” is the moment where, if he were Lady Gaga, Condon would put a little more clothes on, hike one enormous boot on top of his piano, and wail like a contestant in American Idol to move his audience with plain isolated humanity (and either a lot of makeup or some brass instruments). Thus The Rip Tide has some of Condon’s happiest and poppiest moods along with a healthy dose of anguish that color his uncluttered melodies with swells of emotion, as if he had written the soundtrack to John Dennis’ trek across the Alps.