In 2009, 23-year-old Zach Condon told us that “my earliest obsession was of Europe as a kind of utopia compared to suburban America.” A lot has changed in the decade since but, ever the world citizen, Condon’s cultured curiosity continues to deliver on its clockwork-like four-year cycle.
In these divided times, the idea of Europe splits opinion, but for Beirut and Condon it’s always been a compelling influence. Even when that influence is less overt, as it was on 2011’s ‘The Rip Tide’, rightly or wrongly, it’s become an intrinsic aspect of Beirut’s identity; a barometer for every release as to whether Beirut have stayed “true” to their adopted roots. Piqued by a trip with his brother as a teen, that sense of borderless adventure has fed Condon’s inquisitiveness in a way giant flags in the front yard and white-picket fences never could. It’s a mindset that was never going to be fulfilled by one style or one continent, so it’s little surprise that Condon made his way from Sante Fe to New York, set up home in Berlin, fell in love in Turkey, and then headed to rural Italy to create ‘Gallipoli’.
Following those recording stints in New York and Berlin, Condon settled in Sudestudio, a studio complex deep in rural Puglia, southern Italy, to rediscover the uninhibited creativity that had felt stifled. His previous album, ‘No No No’, was ironically criticized for sounding “too American” but ‘Gallipoli’ gets straight to the postcard nostalgia with drifting horns featuring heavily on opener ‘When I Die’ and the album’s title-track.
Inspired by stumbling upon “a brass band procession fronted by priests carrying a statue of the town’s saint through the winding narrow streets”, ‘Gallipoli’ is transportive in the wistful way Beirut have made their own these last 15 years. And it’s that ear for the culturally evocative that sets a familiarly elegant tone for the album.
Flick through the tracklist and ‘Gallipoli’, ‘On Mainau Island’ and ‘Corfu’ provide an instant sense of place, images of hazy continental summers, towns you drove through, snippets of songs you heard but couldn’t place: a slew of sweet, melancholic memories.
That troubadour spirit and willingness to dig into cultural curios, instruments and happily wander through the world in search of fresh perspective, as well as Condon’s ability to embrace those differences with charm and authenticity, is what makes his work worth cherishing. It’s a style that takes skill and self-deprecation, and when you throw in some of the personal turmoil Condon’s endured over the years (the crippling stage-fright, the chronic insomnia, the manic depression, the fear of flying, the exhaustion, the divorce…) it deserves appreciation.
It’s also easy to overlook the fact that Condon’s still 32, and while some of his contemporaries of the mid-00s have faded away he’s built a reverence through turning the mild-mannered into the sonorously beautiful. He does it in shades here with ‘I, Giardini’ emerging as the mournful-sounding twin to the indelibly jaunty ‘Santa Fe’ whereas the lamenting ‘We Never Lived Here’ has Condon reminiscing “she said it’s so strange when you call.” Elsewhere, the organ chords and intertwining chorale vocals of ‘Gauze für Zah’ hit with melodic heft, and ‘Light in the Atoll’ goes in for some horn-heavy theatrics, but it’s ‘Family Curse’ that stands out as the most complete track on the album with its simple, soft drum-pad beat rising into a beautiful, orchestral opus of strings, brass fanfare and piano.
After the struggles of ‘No No No’, it’s heartening to hear Condon hasn’t just refound his feet in Berlin but has also reclaimed some of the wide-eyed ambition that seemed to get lost in the chaos of New York and the less sentimental aspect of freezing in a basement to grind that album out.
There are few images more romantic than that of an American in Europe and while ‘Gallipoli’ doesn’t pour on the Balkan folk or pay homage to French culture the way he did on the brilliantly realised ‘Gulag Orkestar’ or ‘The Flying Club Cup’, Beirut’s enduring qualities are here in force: Condon’s sad, crooning voice, the chamber brass, the hopeless romanticism. In that sense, ‘Gallipoli’ is the sound of a man reinvigorated, in love, obsessing less about the process and more focused on finding the joy that made Beirut both unlike anything you’d heard but also ephemeral songs you couldn’t remember.
It’s a rekindling of the wandering, poetic snapshots of living a life less ordinary. And in an era where looking for something beyond the borders you were born in is met with the poisonous and the punitive, Beirut’s nomadic embrace is something we can all believe in.
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