Let’s get this out of the way early doors. Anyone expecting a dramatic departure from Zach Condon’s brand of woozy, accordion-toting wist is going to leave The Rip Tide, Beirut’s third full-length album, comprehensively disappointed. In the two years since the band released the double EP March of the Zapotec/Holland, there’s clearly been a tightening of bolts, a chamfering of the raw edges that characterised the outfit’s genre-spanning output to date. Unfortunately this is a process with some casualties.
In this spirit of full disclosure, die-hard Beirut enthusiasts will be far from disappointed with The Rip Tide as a solid, if stingy serving of nine songs. While it’s true to say that Condon’s pop sensibilities are given more of an airing than in previous meetings, there is something of the aloof in his work here.
There’s less of that aching, drowning-six-yards-from-shore beauty from some of the arrangements on début Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup. Missing, too, is the Brel/Gainsbourg melodrama, all seemingly in the quest for a swath of unbecoming sheen. Still, there's no shame in Condon's failure to hit the prodigious heights of former glories and there are still some remarkable moments throughout The Rip Tide’s modest running time.
Vagabond steadily builds to a climax that draws goosebumps in a way not seen since Cliquot’s yearning outro. East Harlem is as solid a first single as you’ll hear all year and Santa Fe is a successful cross pollination of the electric elements from March of the Zapotec and classic Beirut rabble-rousing Gypsy-busk.
Unfortunately, these moments are separated by unremarkable dirges like Payne's Bay and The Peacock, which reveal themselves with the predictability of food poisoning from a mouthful of month-old raw chicken. Hunker down and bury yourself beneath The Flying Club Cup’s horn sections, layered vocal parts and soaring string sections and at the core you had timeless, emotionally-charged melodies – songs in Nantes, The Flying Club Cup, Cherbourg and A Sunday Smile that would stand up to a stripped back acoustic performance but delivered in an endearingly shambolic manner.
Here, we have an accomplished batch of songs, all setting out for a clearly defined goal and meeting it with aplomb – what’s missing is that essentiality. It’s as if in this quest for refinement, the lifeblood of that incredible second effort has been lost. What’s left on The The Rip Tide is the most sophisticated coffee table album of 2011, which is damning it with the faintest praise.
I’ve no doubt that Condon is blessed with the talents to record a truly great album; it’s just not this one. Far from a catastrophe, this offering earns a wrinkled nose, a slight shrug of shoulders, a skip of track.