Only five years ago, a young Zach Condon sent ‘Postcards From Italy’. Gulag Orkestar was a Balkan stomp around the “motherland”, shackling interpretations of gypsy folk and romantic orchestrations from Eastern Europe. Next stop: Paris, France – The Flying Club Cup, inspired by a picture of hot air balloons by the Eiffel Tower, was a move westward towards more Gallic sounds and scents, a woozy ode to all things French. Bags packed, Condon then took off to Mexico – the small village of Teotitlan del Valle to be exact. There he composed March of the Zapotec, a celebration of Mexican life and death, their unique attitude to the latter and the music surrounding it. On his travels, Condon brandished accordion, violin, clarinet, ukulele, mandolin, jazzy piano, audacious strings, clattering percussion, and brass – lots of brass – with wild abandon. Not to mention his acrobatic yodel, at times belting but always retaining a melancholic nuance. All piled on with splendour.
The Rip Tide is a grounding assessment, a returning traveller taking stock. Abroad, Beirut embodied majesty and passion fuelled by the excitement of youth and voyage. At home, it’s a much more muted affair. Condon is re-acclimatising himself to life off the road, reflective in familiar surroundings – and with the tumult of adventure, comes certain weariness. At the centre of the record is ‘Goshen’, a funereal march with mournful sweeps, while the album’s title song opens with a despondent trumpet fanfare. As if grief-stricken Condon sings: “this is the house where I / I feel alone”. In contrast to the ramshackle ornateness on March of the Zapotec, the instrumentation on The Rip Tide is both more hushed and statelier. But it isn’t elegiac, it’s just measured – some might say reserved. Orchestral arrangements have been reigned in and the song-writing tightened.
‘East Harlem’ is Condon re-familiarising himself with New York. Behind the swoonsome accordion, trumpets and trombone is a youthful lo-fi indie pop tune; swap out the brass for guitars and you’ve got The Strokes. And Condon is still young. Very young. ‘Santa Fe’ is testament to that: “your days in one / this day undone / all day at once / I’m just too young”, on it Condon employs his trademark jaunty horn section and accordion with the synth-percussion of Holland, his bedroom-pop moniker. The pinnacle of new Beirut is ‘The Peacock’, a song for a fallen soldier crafted with elegance; soft organ rouse a harmonic chorus of subtle horns and a vocal choir singing: “he’s the only one that knows the words.”
The Rip Tide will certainly widen Beirut’s audience. As is often the case with broadening appeal, there’s an element of dilution – in this case, a more restrained approach to orchestration. But this measured approach is easily afforded coming from such a rich heritage, resulting in august and distinguished arrangements. On first listen, ardent fans might pool together to fly Zach Condon off to Belarus for a summer. But the truth is The Rip Tide presents a matured Beirut, one that gleams in a whole new majesty.