Beirut The Rip Tide

[Pompeii; 2011]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: folk-pop, chanson, indie
Others: A Hawk and A Handsaw, DeVotchKa, Owen Pallett

Something about Beirut’s third full-length reminds me of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”; every time I put the Rip Tide on the stereo, I half expect David Byrne’s voice to pop in, an unexpected but always welcome guest. Vocally and instrumentally, there are few direct similarities between Beirut and Talking Heads, and so I have to assume that this tenuous connection exists nowhere outside my mind. But each time I return to this record, my mind drifts back to that song, and I’m left wondering why. Best as I can figure out, it has something to do with exhaustion, resignation, and an ambivalent embrace of sentimentality. It’s called being in your mid-twenties, I suppose. David Byrne was 31 when Speaking in Tongues came out, but maybe we’re just getting there — getting old — faster these days. All this white noise about debt ceilings and credit ratings has to make some sort of psychic or metaphysical impact on our lives.

Zach Condon is only 25 now, but it appears that he’s already arrived at that same capital-p, proper noun Place. His first two albums were spirited, in the wide-eyed way restless young tourists often are. There was a romantic — but anti-pragmatic and unsustainable — feeling to Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Cup Club; Condon was moving from “Bratislava” to “Nantes,” from one new love on to the next, newer love. Even the single that first garnered Condon media attention, “Postcards from Italy,” was a precociously idealized vision of love, memory, and mortality. The sound was old, wistful, but the emotions were vivid, less faded — better preserved — than any old postcard could ever be. It was the art, the impulse, the product of youth. “Those were our times, those were our times,” Condon sung, already framing himself in past tenses. As the song gets older, the phrasing becomes ever more accurate and ever more painful a reminder of the passage of time.

Six years later, Condon’s output has slowed considerably, and he sounds not tired, but weathered, homesick. “You never found it home/A fair price I’d pay to be alone,” he warbles over a steadily increasing martial beat. Is he addressing himself on “Goshen”? The shift from second- to first-person might indicate otherwise, but three songs later, on “Vagabond,” he sings about losing the “trail of stones [he left] to find [his] way back home.” The themes, and Condon’s yearning, signified in the deepening melancholia of his voice, are unmistakable. There’s a dispassionate air to the proceedings, and to many The Rip Tide might sound like a mellowing, a watering-down of Beirut’s older sound. But it’s not difficult to reason that this third album is as vivid a document of this period in Condon’s life as were his less enervated albums, EPs, and singles.

Sequenced early in the album, the uncharacteristically bright “Santa Fe” finds Condon ready for his homecoming. “Sign me up Santa Fe/ And call your son,” he sings, addressing his place of origin, sounding proud and happy. But as The Rip Tide progresses, the music grows slower, more mournful. At the end of the record, it seems like he still hasn’t found what he was looking for; but if still searching, at least it sounds like he has come to an understanding, if not complete acceptance of his needs and desires. “Was it infantile/ That which we desire?” he asks, before confessing to being sick of hopeless romanticism, of the life of the chase, on the final lines of the album.

There are times when the solemnity gets to be a little much, songs where Condon lays the self-consciousness on a little thick, but fails to compensate with music memorable or emotional enough to distract or compensate for the sophomoric wallowing. “The Peacock,” in which he envisions himself as a targeted soldier, while possibly alluding to writer’s block — but who knows, the metaphors are muddled and mixed, many times over — is something of a drag, as are the Sylvia Plath-itudes of the album’s title track.

But putting out of mind those moments when Condon tips his hand too low, revealing the unflattering, lingering traces of immaturity, The Rip Tide succeeds as a primary source of a time, a headspace, a mood, a feeling, a Place. The Rip Tide is maybe a breakup record, an album about falling out of love, but I suspect that even those traces of sadness and bitterness are romantic gestures, and that it might actually be an album about falling in love with falling out of love. Or something like that. I guess that home is where we all want to be, ultimately, but it’s not an easy place to find. As a representation of how it feels to find yourself helplessly adrift, The Rip Tide simultaneously strikes a nerve and soothes it; that’s a pretty old trick, but Beirut have done it with the right mixture of solipsism and grace to bring the feelings flooding back again.

Links: Beirut - Pompeii

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