To anyone aside from the handful of people who had already familiarized themselves with the sounds of Balkan folk and traditional Eastern European music, Beirut‘s 2006 debut Gulag Orkestar probably felt fairly unusual, but it was still in sync with its time. With the emergence of artists like Sufjan Stevens and the Arcade Fire, major players in indie music had begun to abandon conventional rock arrangements. Now, five years later, that shift is complete. As a result of this sea change, Beirut’s sound isn’t quite as novel anymore. Even considering the plethora of geographical touch points the band — or more specifically singer Zach Condon — has explored, Beirut’s sound now feels fairly familiar. This is not such a bad thing. In a sense it leaves Beirut free to be Beirut, not tied to the trappings of a genre association and, intentional or not, it seems like that’s exactly the mindset of the band on The Rip Tide. For the first time, Beirut has created an album without any passages that can easily be pinned to some other place or time.
This is not to say that The Rip Tide doesn’t feel distinctive — Condon’s remarkable vocals alone insure that that isn’t the case. His unique voice has always been a highlight, but in the past the elaborate embellishments had a tendency to bury it. Fortunately, for much of The Rip Tide, Condon’s vocals are mixed up front and center where they belong. In general, the arrangements sound great and suit the songs better as a whole here. Beirut has always been great at incorporating their influences into something unique, but the band really works out a truly vibrant and singular vision on this record. Granted, it’s not as though the strings, ukulele and horns incorporated here would have been out of place on their prior work, they are just more refined and consistent on The Rip Tide.
As for Condon’s lyrics, they are as vague as they have always been, but there are certainly reoccurring themes, namely solitude and disconnection. In the achingly beautiful “East Harlem,” Condon laments the separation between himself and a presumed significant other stating, “Another rose wilts in East Harlem/ And uptown downtown a thousand miles between us.” This isn’t too far off from themes explored in songs like “Postcards From Italy,” but even given “East Harlem’s” poetic language, it’s still placing its gaze closer toward real life than the fantasy of the former song. Likewise, rather than idealize some faraway land, “Santa Fe,” built around a palpitating synth and yearning harmonies, is specifically about Condon’s hometown. And yet, the song can just as easily sweep the listener out of the doldrums as well as any of the travel-inspired songs of his past. In “The Rip Tide” he remarks “This is the house where I could be unknown/ Be alone now,” before being swept up by “the rip tide.” The suggestion of a rip tide could be interpreted in a number of ways, but there is such a rapturous quality about the song, one’s left to believe there is some revelation being made. At any rate, it’s gorgeous.
Each of Beirut’s records up until this point have been rewarding in their own ways, but The Rip Tide is arguably their most accomplished. Given indie music’s current landscape, the band’s approach feels almost refreshingly antiquated in its romanticism. As electronic flourishes and sampled loops have completely taken over the current sonic landscape, Beirut’s wistfully organic sentiment is decidedly out of step. So although Condon isn’t pointing directly at another era this time around, his music still feels like it came from somewhere else. Ultimately, that’s what Beirut has always excelled at; rewarding listeners with an escape from the ordinary.
Stream: Beirut “East Harlem”