The Rip Tide is no big departure for Beirut
If you believe those who write about music for a living, Beirut’s third and latest long-player, The Rip Tide, is Zach Condon’s most stripped-down and straight-ahead effort to date.
It’s obvious where that line of thinking started. When the 26-year-old first shot onto the international stage with the bedroom-spawned recording project known as Beirut, he seemed older than his years. Condon’s 2006 debut, Gulag Orkestar, found him riffing on the music of the Balkans with grand, romantic results, the songs packed with old-world horns and lilting accordion. Impossibly, a 2007 follow-up, The Flying Club Cup, was even more enchanting, with its sepia-toned tracks conjuring up wine-soaked afternoons in dusty French taverns. If those discs didn’t paint Beirut’s chief visionary as a man who gets maximum use out of his passport, then 2009’s March of the Zapotec/Holland EP cemented Condon’s reputation as a world-traveller; the brass-heavy songs were recorded with a 19-piece band unearthed in the small town of Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico.
Given his reputation as a globetrotting bon vivant, Beirut’s main man threw something of a curve ball with The Rip Tide, a record that’s been touted as the most American-sounding of his short but celebrated career. Given that the release doesn’t make you feel like you’ve been doing Rakia shots in Romania, or cracking bottles of Château Haut-Brion in Bordeaux, reviews have painted Condon’s latest as a radical departure.
The only problem with that reading is that it’s not exactly true.
Reached at a Chicago hotel on a day off between tour dates, the Santa Fe–spawned songwriter has a theory as to why The Rip Tide has been perceived the way it has. That starts with how the album came together, with Condon—who’s tended to work solo in the past—enlisting the services of the band that now backs him on-stage.
“I think people made a big deal out of the fact that the backing track, so to speak, was recorded live in one room,” Condon suggests. “I’m talking about the basis of the entire album—the core of it. It was all of us playing together. But after that, obviously, I can’t hold myself back. I need to see a song through from start to finish. I think that kind of got lost in translation a little bit.
“To be honest,” he continues, “sometimes a journalist will latch on to an idea, whether or not it’s true. I do get a kick out of the fact that they will take it as far as the idea can go. It takes on a life of its own in that world, but then you listen to it yourself and go, ‘Well, that doesn’t make any sense.’ ”
The Rip Tide doesn’t exactly, despite what reviews have suggested, come on like a bare-bones rebirth of the Ramones. Consider the regal horns that roar in halfway through the acoustic-guitar-and-voice-centred “A Candle’s Fire”, or the candlelit strings and ever-present accordion that propel the elegant waltz that is “Payne’s Bay”.
There is something different about Beirut, though, as Condon hasn’t so much abandoned his obsession with old-world instrumentation as he has reshaped his songwriting. This time out, he’s locked on to his own sound, creating a record influenced by what’s inside him, rather than the music around him. That’s perhaps most evident in “Santa Fe”, a pure pop song built around an electro-tinted beat.
This shift didn’t happen in a vacuum, as there have been major changes in Condon’s life over the past few years. For a start, he settled down, buying a house in Brooklyn. Considering that he’s lived out of suitcases for much of the past half-decade, having a place to come home to at the end of the day has impacted him creatively. Simply put, Condon is no longer a wayward vagabond. When it came time to begin work on what would become The Rip Tide, he decided to stay close to home, making this record different from past albums that were written after soaking up older cultures overseas.
“I’d been exhausted by the year of touring that lead up to it,” he says of the writing process. “When I was finally able to take a break, the idea was that New York would be too overstimulating if I stayed in the city. So I rented a place upstate for six months. I basically just camped out there the entire winter. It got to the point where I couldn’t even get the car out of the driveway, so I was just stuck in four-foot snowdrifts. It was a place of recovery after two years of complete and utter insanity.”
The solitude would be great for redefining Beirut.
“Usually, I go into a record with heavy influences riding on my shoulders,” Condon says. “This time I intended to, literally, just go where the music took me. Rhythmically and melodically, it was a total blank slate. Like, whatever comes, comes, and I’m not going to force things in any one direction. And for me, I guess, that’s streamlining things, in that the writing doesn’t carry the weight of some sort of objective.”
The end result of all this is that Condon is in a good place these days, not just off-stage but on. As has been well-documented, the singer—who cherishes his alone time—hasn’t always found it easy coping with the demands of being in Beirut, going so far as to cancel a European tour a few years back after realizing he was driving himself to exhaustion. Performing live has even gotten easier for him, in marked contrast to early performances that often found him reaching for a preshow bottle to anesthetize himself.
“I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable,” Condon notes. “When you’re up there, you go through the business of playing songs, but as a presence you wonder what people want from you. And that’s where the uncomfortableness comes from. Eventually, though, if you’re doing things right, that sort of leaves your mind, and problem solved. I’ve realized that you try to be as genuine as possible, sing the songs, and that’s presence enough. That seems to work.”
Consider this proof that he’s making at least part of what he does in Beirut, then, straight-ahead and streamlined.
Beirut plays the Orpheum on Saturday (July 28).