Zach Condon’s been a tough nut to crack since way back in the yesteryear of 2006. He earned a lot of fans back in that bygone era, sure, attracting listeners to the old-world flourishes and kitchen-sink aesthetics of early Beirut albums Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup; he also was targeted by a (much quieter, granted) contingent of detractors accusing him of stuffing his merely-okay songs with so much offbeat instrumentation that the non-discerning listener simply falls prey to all the pretty sounds.
Which, to these ears, sounds like empty backlash – after all, can’t most songwriting hiccups be solved by making those songs sound really, really good? Is there any crime in that? After all, we’ve been lathering Kanye’s albums in praise since jump street, forgiving some dodgy lyrical content because, well, his albums sound incredible. Either way, it looks like those days have passed; The Rip Tide, Beirut’s triumphant return (heralded with trumpet fanfare, natch), is home to Condon’s best batch of tunes to date, and he even dials back the heavy-handed orchestration a fair bit to craft an intimate, sunny, remarkably succinct record.
And that’s not to say that Condon has stripped himself of all character. The Rip Tide is still colored-in with instrumental flourish; it’s just that, now, Condon is coloring inside of the lines, instead of coloring on the wall because he’s an artist and he can. Largely, these songs rest on a melodic piano and a fervently-strummed uke – and then a horn section comes in to pretty everything up, and the whole enterprise really sounds quite lovely. “Vagabond” hinges on a lovely, repeated melody; the horns walk in demurely, instead of crashing through the roof. And sure, a harpsichord solo wanders in about halfway through, but it feels organic, never like dilettantism.
And so it goes. Most of the tunes on The Rip Tide follow one of two general templates – either a song begins with horn fanfare and then quiets down (like the title track), or, more likely, it begins with Condon’s expressive baritone and a solitary instrument (piano, often, but occasionally an endearingly corny synth) and adds layers from there, an overdubbed trumpet here, a series of vocal harmonies there – but they never stagnate, and they never feel self-important. The songs on The Rip Tide earn their pomp organically, and it’s not plagued by overwhelmingly off-kilter instrumentation, but instead imbued with a certain sense of wonder. Upon first listen, it’s delightful to find yourself anticipating where Condon will take these songs; and, not for nothing, but these melodies sound spectacularly lived-in. If instant familiarity is the sweet spot of pop songcraft, The Rip Tide excels – the melodies seep into your soul and stay there, genetically engineered to produce a tingly sense of happiness.
The Rip Tide isn’t the work of a young artist struggling to find his songwriting voice – it’s a purposeful, assured song set, unfettered by an unchecked muse or delusions of grandeur. This is Beirut’s unqualified success; this is what allows Zach Condon to sidle up alongside Stephin Merritt and Jens Lekman as a writer of unconventional, unassailable, lovely pop music that would sound just as good stripped down to an acoustic guitar as it does with all of the bells and whistles vibrating.