"This album started out as an identity crisis," says Beirut mastermind Zach Condon, referring to The Rip Tide, his band's third and most recent album. "And it became the solution to said identity crisis. That's the best way to say it in a short phrase."
It was probably bound to happen. Condon, 25, got his start as a musician early. A self-diagnosed "outsider to the music world," Condon spent his adolescence hidden away in his bedroom in Santa Fe, N.M., spending sleepless nights crafting whatever distant melodies were bouncing around in his head. Despite being able to play multiple instruments—trumpet, piano, ukulele—and composing elaborate brass arrangements, he was self-trained, if you don't count two years of middle-school trumpet lessons. New Mexico's cross-culture diversity influenced his songwriting, and he drew inspiration from mariachi and Balkan folk. When he was 17, he trekked across Europe with his older brother, soaking up musical styles.
Condon's Beirut debut, 2006's Gulag Orkestar, reflected that cultural overload, spilling at the seams with ornate brass and ukulele strums. Even his voice was decidedly grand, his wide vibrato preciously coating every note. Critics loved it—Condon was suddenly tagged as a Pitchfork darling, and press releases and news stories were filled with descriptions like "wunderkind" and "world music" and "exotic," painting an image of a cocky, introverted musicologist. Though reviews remained glowing for 2007's The Flying Club Cup and the slew of EPs that followed, and though his fanbase continued to swell, Condon grew increasingly frustrated with the mounting pressure, breaking down in the shadow of an image he never asked for. The levee finally broke after the touring behind 2009's March of the Zapotec EP.
"There were so many things going on," Condon says. "I just got off a practically endless tour, and I just felt like I'd been pushed by forces outside myself too far, and I'd agreed to more than I could take on. ... I think in some ways, too, I was frustrated with the way I was being represented in the press—that I'd fit into this neat and tidy little narrative of the young, traveling, precocious kid adopting styles from around the world, and I was really pissed off because I really thought there was a lot more to it than that, and I thought that was really condescending. So between all that, I was just like, ‘Can I sustain this career? Do I even want to?'"
But Condon eventually found relief—and inspiration—from isolation. Much like Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, who recorded his haunting debut alone in a Wisconsin cabin, Condon wanted to utilize his disconnect from the outside world, to harness his loneliness. So he rented a giant farmhouse in upstate New York, where he set to work on The Rip Tide.
"Remember, you have to imagine that I usually go to New Mexico, and my friends will rent me this beautiful room on the top floor of an office building, with wood floors and a giant view of Albuquerque, and that's where I've done most of my work outside of the first album," he says. "And this time, I decided I wanted to stick closer to home, and ‘home' this time, since I bought a house, was Brooklyn."
But Condon, now hyper-aware of his musical image, was conscious of sidestepping the obvious sonic paths.
"So the joke going in was that I had to promise myself not to write a ‘whispery folk, winter' album," he says. "I remember thinking to myself, ‘I'm going to write pop songs, goddammit!' And to an extent, sure, but there is a kind of bittersweet edge to them that wouldn't have taken place anywhere else. Between the isolation—and, it's such a cliché, but it's snowing outside, and I have the fire going and a glass of cognac, and I'm just sitting at the piano alone in this giant empty house."
The Rip Tide sounds like a new chapter in his artistic journey. The songs are scaled back to a more accessible core, with many focusing on bare-bones piano and ukulele arrangements. Perhaps due to his own self-imposed "pop songs" rule, Condon managed to avoid dreary ambience and balladry. Writing with only three instruments (piano, organ, and drum machine), he scrapped together a series of semi-improvised demos of himself humming and shouting over piano and organ progressions, which he later brought to his band to flesh out with brass and a rhythm section. The results are decidedly perkier—the bouncy, synth-led "Santa Fe" and wintry "East Harlem" (inspired by Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem") are the catchiest songs he's ever written, creating a wonderful (and intentional) contrast with his "harshly introspective lyrics."
"I thought I would take everything I knew about music up to that point, everything I'd written, and throw everything into this very short, very to-the-point album," Condon says. "And I think that just made it better."