How fitting that the first single from The Rip Tide is “East Harlem,” a neighborhood in New York City, the place that during the dawn of America was a beacon to those around the world as a melting pot of people and cultures. Like those coming through Ellis Island so long ago, Beirut takes their globe-spanning sounds and experiences and distills them into something that is uniquely their own, while still retaining elements of the “old world.”
Three years have passed since releasing a fascinating juxtaposition of EPs, March of the Zapotec, a collection of songs in the tradition of Oaxaca, Mexico, and Realpeople: Holland, a return to the electronic bedroom pop of his pre-Beirut days. It showed the two critical facets of main man Zach Condon’s writing—the deft adaptation of centuries old music styles, as well as the indie pop sensibilities that lay beneath the wall of brass. Around this time, he was in a state of serious doubt. He was musically restless, as evident from his first two releases as Beirut, 2006’s shambolic but heart-wrenchingly beautiful and Balkan-influenced Gulag Orkestar and 2007’s sublime and masterful turn of the 20th Century Paris-inspired The Flying Club Cup. Once he had mastered a sound of a time or place, he moved on, but this time he felt like he was running out of places to absorb.
With the gift of hindsight, 2009’s double EP release can be seen as him holding up his two personalities and thinking to himself, “now if I could just combine these two elements, then I’d have something!” Fortunate for us, The Rip Tide is the culmination of those efforts and to great effect. “A Candle’s Fire” gently eases us into the outing with the familiar drum beats and noble horns as Condon tries to put the his lover’s troubles in perspective by reminding her that “a candle’s fire is only a flame.” It has that classic Beirut sound and assures listeners this band has no identity crisis. It’s not until the second song, “Santa Fe,” that this marriage of sounds becomes apparent as the underpinning electronic beat propels the song subtly as it mixes with more traditional elements, especially Condon’s flugelhorn, bringing familiarity yet melding with the digital beat wonderfully. He sings of his hometown and his acceptance of it as such, much as he’s accepted his different musical styles and combines them.
Lead single “East Harlem” combines beautiful and simplistic lyrics with a melody of equal measure. It’s the secret to a lot of Beirut’s best songs. Condon may not have the clever lyrical wordplay of someone like Dylan, but he’s gifted at providing evocative, impressionistic images of a time and place, with characters full of regret or longing that are a perfect match for the accompanying instrumentation. A deceptively simple concept, but it happens a lot less in pop music today than you’d think. “Goshen” is another great example of this method. He sings of someone who obviously prefers another’s company to his, and you sense his bitterness and regret, but Beirut combines it with the soft drummer boy rhythm and mournful horns and you have something with more ache and proximity to the emotion felt than your typical Top 40 track covering that oft-trod lyrical territory.
Another important aspect of Beirut ‘s uniqueness that isn’t touched upon enough is the style in which Condon sings. While most today are content to scream, whine and grunt, Condon chooses to croon. It’s an art form mostly relegated to Rat Pack territory these days and doesn’t get its due amongst younger audiences. Despite this, it’s a beautiful singing style and perfectly matches the horns and beats of the music. It’s a refreshing change of pace in today’s musical landscape.
More of the combination of electronics and horns shows up in the second half of the album, as titular track “The Rip Tide” has a great little toe-tapping beat. “Vagabond,” which could be seen as this band’s anthem, stops its electronic charge just long enough for an accordion breakdown that evokes the feeling of an ancient carousel shimmering with light as each note plays out. From there the album winds down with the morose “The Peacock” which name drops Berlin and alludes to the Iraq/Afghanistan war before the utterly devastating “Port of Call” where he sings of being alone, adrift at sea and how he can’t be saved.
It’s a terribly dark way to end the album, but it is in these final moments that all of the album comes together and you realize repeated mention of the cold, of being alone, of giving up on a special someone throughout the album. The whole thing through its soaring swells and hushed intimacy is the sound of a man coming to terms with loss and the acceptance of being alone, but still managing to smile—even if it’s too dark for anyone to see. This may be the same jaded young man with an old soul who created a masterful manifesto of blatant sadness and resignation in his first album, but he’s balanced his light and dark tendencies in the music to strike a wonderful accord, creating one of the finest and easily most cohesive records of his career. The melting pot that is Beirut on The Rip Tide is alive with sights and smells of a bygone era, but seasoned to taste for the modern era.
First presses of The Rip Tide on both CD and LP are in a gorgeous cloth-bound book style presentation that lends itself that much more to the feeling of the content within. This review was conducted using the LP version, and the packaging is great, of excellent quality and including an interesting postcard that contains a download code for the entire album. It’s not the flattest or quietest pressing ever heard, but it’s a pure joy to listen to this music on this format, as it most appropriately befits the aesthetics of the sound and band themselves.
Written by Jarad Matula