[Album Review] Beirut – The Rip Tide

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Beirut is quite simply one of the best bands out there. Fronted by the über-talented, Zach Condon, the Brooklyn-based outfit make rich and textured music, unlike any other. They possess an instantly recognizable sound – that glorious blend of Balkan folk, gypsy music and indie rock– yet still manage to defy any labels. Their new album, The Rip Tide, proves just that: they can add new and different elements to their music, but still maintain all the trademarks that make them great, while keeping their musical identity intact. It’s the best of both worlds.

After four long years of waiting, the anticipation for The Rip Tide’s release was palpable; each new offering only fed our desperate hunger for this album. Our first preview of the album was “East Harlem”: a gorgeous track about star-crossed lovers (“She’s waiting for night to fall. Let it fall, I’ll never make it in time”), which was happily devoured and dissected by bloggers and fans alike. We can finally breathe easy now: it is here, and it’s just as good as we dreamed it would be.

Beirut’s songs always have a sense of setting, and an uncanny ability to evoke feelings linked to those places. With Gulag Orkestar, they took us on a wild ride across the Balkans; we then travelled to France with The Flying Cup Club, until they brought us down to the exotic South of Mexico with The March of the Zapotec. Now, with The Rip Tide, we are transported to New York, where the album was recorded during last year’s implacable winter.

These aren’t necessarily winter songs; the album as a whole evidently has more pop elements than ever before. However, the songs still retain a sense of personal introspection – a trait often linked to the season. In other words, while the songs may sound lighter, they still feel intimate and personal, which makes for a very interesting listening experience. One thing is for sure though: we get an insight into Zach Condon’s inner workings in a way we never had before.

What is most notable about The Rip Tide is how much he’s toned down the Eastern European influences, and the carnival-esque swirl of instruments that permeated his previous works. This album is a lot more understated and concise but no less powerful; dialed down or not, it simply cannot be mistaken for anything other than a Beirut record. Their instrumentation has always been impeccable, and this is no exception. The album plays so easily… almost effortlessly; each melody and arrangement is careful and thoughtfully placed, which further evidences Condon’s continued mastery of his craft.

The album’s opener, “A Candle’s Fire” is, as the title would suggest, a warm introduction to The Rip Tide; with latent melancholia, Condon muses: “if I had known not to carry on that way, it wouldn’t show in the creases of your face.” The following track is the gorgeous “Santa Fe”, which makes good use of bouncy electronic elements, paired with layered vocals, as Condon declares his love for his hometown: “Sign me up Santa Fe, and call me your son.” The tracks “Payne’s Bay” and “Vagabond” feature catchy and infectious melodies, consistent with the album’s new pop tendency, which definitely recalls Sufjan Stevens. “Port of Call” is another good example of this lighter touch, opening with only a glockenspiel and ukulele, it blows by almost unperceived.

“Goshen” is an exquisite song, and probably one of the more simple ones in terms of arrangements. The song recounts the emotions and thoughts of a performer right before he takes the stage: “you’re on in five, it’s time you rise or fail (…) the lights are down, go on inside, they’ve paid.” But his thoughts quickly become tangled with a love crisis: “you’re not the girl I used to know.” The conflict inside of him is evident, as he struggles between what he should do and what is preoccupying his mind. As he steps out to meet the audience, he softly sings: “A fair price I’d pay to be alone.” The album’s title-track runs in the same vein as “Goshen”, showing us more of Condon’s introspectiveness: “This is the house where I can be unknown, be alone.” Not since The March of the Zapotec had his lyrics felt this personal and vulnerable.

While new fans might find more appealing the raw and sprawling sound of Beirut’s previous work – after all, it is undoubtedly more thrilling – old fans will surely appreciate what might very well be the natural progression of their sound. Some might say this album feels safe, but I would argue the exact opposite. Condon takes us to new musical landscapes by taking the greatest risk of all: showing genuine intimacy, stripped of all that gorgeous noise. This album might be a slow-burner, but one which will reward you with each new listen. It possesses nothing less than breathtaking beauty. Really, my only complaint is how short it is: nine tracks are definitely not enough.

The new album is out now via Condon’s very own Pompeii Records. Get it.

[Mp3] Beirut – “Santa Fe”

[Mp3] Beirut – “Goshen”

[Mp3] Beirut – “Vagabond”

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