Beirut - "Santa Fe"
Zach Condon really wants you to really, really love his new album The Rip Tide. Condon, the man behind Beirut, has simultaneously lavished his songs and pared them back to the essential elements he has honed on earlier releases. The nine songs that compose The Rip Tide are lean yet regal, tuneful yet offbeat, meticulous yet heartfelt. It sounds like the breakout album an artist of his considerable talent ought to make at this point in his career – a work to swoon over. And I was prepared to swoon. Only, the more I listened to The Rip Tide, the more I realized it is a magnificent bauble, not the masterwork Condon, and I, wanted it to be, a rare album that diminishes with each additional play.
The Rip Tide sounds likeCondon is still playing dress-up, rather than finding his own artistic voice. He is fettered by his influences – the foremost being Stephin Merritt and Morrissey – to the point where homage begins to teeter into imitation. If you didn’t know better, you would swear “Santa Fe” were a lost Magnetic Fields gem. And that’s the problem with the album: these are (with the exception of its melodramatic title track) wonderful songs, only you’ve probably heard them all before.
Condon shines brightest as a canny formalist and multi-instrumentalist. The Rip Tide overflows with gleaming folk-pop that prefers ukulele to guitar, flugelhorn to trumpet, with accordion, trombone, and tuba thrown in for the hell of it. At his best, Condon weaves this motley mix of instruments into outright stunners. “Goshen,” an aching ballad-cum-march, has a vocal melody so good it could be stripped naked and still sink its iron fist into your stomach. Yet, like The Walkmen’s “Stranded” (a close relative), its horns are not mere embellishment, but a means to heighten the emotional heft of the lyric. The oom-pah-pah waltz of “Payne’s Bay” gives way to a stately lament: “Headstrong today, I’ve been headstrong.” Maybe so, Zach. But this song earns much more than our forgiveness.
The gypsy abandon of Condon’s past work (fully realized on the video for The Flying Cup Club’s “Nantes”) is, thankfully, still present on The Rip Tide. The jaunty duo “East Harlem” and “The Vagabond” are winsome, almost to a fault. The former, The Rip Tide’s lead single, has tenderness to spare, even though a simple ostinato piano-rhythm is its backbone and best attribute. Woozy album-opener “A Candle’s Fire” swirls and spins, a creampuff of a song that delivers little more than the thrill of a sugar rush. But, hey, a thrill is a thrill, however empty its calories.
So The Rip Tide isn’t what I hoped for, the triumph it could have been. Instead, it resembles the title of one of its tracks: a peacock, rightfully proud of its beauty, its only reason for being.