So much for all those debates about authenticity that followed Zach Condon around after his first full-length Beirut album, Gulag Orkestar, came out in 2006. The Francophilian Balkan folk that filled up that album sounded sweet, but some accused Condon of aping culture that wasn’t his to ape, or hiding behind that culture and not giving us enough of himself.
Since then, though, his music has moved (with the exception of 2009’s March of the Zapotec) away from the specific cultural ties of his first record. 2007’s The Flying Club Cup still had horns and Balkan influence, but Condon and his pop sensibilities were starting to overshine those touchstones. The Rip Tide pushes that balance even further, resulting in Condon’s fully realized pop record. He feels, more than ever, comfortable in his own skin here, letting his confidence and maturity shine through. We know he knows musical tradition, but what he shows us here is that he now knows his own sound better.
That comfort and confidence bleeds over into the music itself as these nine songs sway sweetly over the record’s brief 33-minute running time. The first three songs offer an impressive and catchy introduction to the record. Despite starting on a lone accordion, opener “A Candle’s Fire” spreads out with crisp percussion and a bed of horns. When Condon begins to sing, though, (“What would you ask a campfire?” he asks, strangely) the horns quit. This isn’t about the staggering power of horns, they are here to play second chair to the honeyed curl of Condon’s voice. “Santa Fe” follows as a more up-tempo shift in Beirut’s sound. It encorporates Condon’s early love of eletro-pop into the mix beautifully, playing soft keys off sharp drums and Condon’s layered vocals filling the space in between. The song becomes a heady mix of tumbling vamps on the keyboard and huge flourishes from the horn section — a fitting combination of sounds from Condon’s past, given how he grew up in Santa Fe.
“East Harlem,” though, is the high-water mark on the album. It’s got the most striking melody, Condon pressing through quick lines rather than lilting them out lazily. The urgency of it, the pining over the woman at the song’s center, feels deeply personal. This is no nod to the past, this is a shot in the gut, a window into Condon’s feelings. The feeling of loss, and of being lost, continues to come up again and again on The Rip Tide. Most of the songs are named after places (and there’s another track called “Vagabond”), with Condon moving from place to place, perhaps against his will as the album title indicates. He’s often frustrated by distance (from that girl in “East Harlem,” for example) or by unknowing. In the brief but haunting “The Peacock 1,” Condon repeats the line “He’s the only one who knows the words.” You know he wants to learn those words, the tension mounts as he repeats it, but he never finds out.
That payoff, the resolution of Condon’s wandering, is what gets left out of the record. These songs offer more space than anything on Gulag Orkestar or The Flying Club Cup, and as a result they underline that feeling of isolation. But smartly, Condon offers no easy solution. Even as the album closes on “Port of Call” he admits he “may drift awhile.” If he’s searching for a place to take root, he never finds it on The Rip Tide, at least not thematically. Sonically, though, Condon has very much found a home in these pop songs. The mix of cultures, of folk music, of horns, it’s not a patchwork of pre-existing sound anymore. This is his, and it is as tuneful a sound as he’s capable of making.
But for an album about searching, there’s a feeling that once Condon found the sound on this record, he let things glide along from there. It’s a solid pop record, top to bottom, but after those three standouts to open the record, it sways on its own sweet breeze. The combinations of electro-pop and folk are compelling, Condon’s voice unsurprisingly sweet, but the tension seeps out of it somewhere in the middle so that it could be one of those albums that gets relegated to the background when you put it on the home stereo. Granted, if you spend some time with it, it’s got some great secrets hidden in it. But for all the excitement and dramatic tension of the opening tracks, Condon himself seems unsurprised by his songs the rest of the way, and you might find yourself reacting the same way. Pleasantly surprised at first, then just pleasant.