(Pompeii Records) The Rip Tide, by Beirut, is both expansive and personal. The personal can be heard in the wheezing strains of the pump organ that opens “A Candle's Fire.” It's not long, though, before an entire tattered orchestra swells in to carry the melody into the wild blue -- or maybe the wild black.
“What would you ask a campfire?” asks Zach Condon in warbling tones. It takes a moment to wrap your brain around that question, and then another moment to wrap your brain around the fact that it's not a question (at least, not one meant to be answered).
The Rip Tide belongs to a family of huge, mystical albums such as Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeoroplane Over the Sea, The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin, The Mountain Goats' We Shall All Be Healed, and Sufjan Steven's Come On Feel the Illinoise! -- albums that sound brash, honest, and esoteric at the same time. They're not interested in the vagaries of scripture; they're interested in the mysteries of experience. In short, they're not religious; they're spiritual, and it's the kind of spirituality that examines the hours and days of life on Earth, rather than some far-flung cloudy paradise. It's like hearing a gospel choir sing the praises of Stephen Dedalus.
Anyone who has ever messed around with a cheap Casio or Yamaha keyboard will appreciate the genius of “Santa Fe,” a love song to Condon's hometown. The entire composition is based around one of the built-in beats from one such instrument. It's simple yet expressive. Condon seems to be telling us: Anyone could have written these songs, but I did, because it was important to me. Maybe you should write some about things that are important to you.
Witnessing him perform this alchemy of the mundane into the meaningful inspires one to imitate that transformation.
Geography plays a big role in the experience as well. More than half the songs are named after cities. These may be places that Beirut has visited in their travels, or they may be imagined settings for dream-dramas peopled by characters that pass on the street. Either way, the effect is that of an interior geography rising to meet the winding outlines of a map. “I've been headstrong,” repeats Condon in “Payne's Bay.” Maybe he's talking about the poet's audacity in trying to capture the emotional landscape of those he may not know as well as he pretends. Maybe not.
A riptide is a current that sweeps into shore and carries the unwary swimmer back out to sea in a kind of rushing spiral. “This is the house where I feel alone / This is the house where I can be unknown / So the waves and I found the rip tide,” sings Condon in the title track. These are the only lyrics in the song. A thousand more words couldn't make it more powerful. It could be the tale of a melancholy man losing himself in isolation and introspection, the story of an abused soul finding a place of safety and solace, or a portrait of a dreamer toying with a realm of ideas that may consume her. It's a universal anthem for anyone who has felt the tug of strange forces, heard the song of other spheres, or wished to know faraway places. This one alone is worth the price of admission.
It's important not to minimize the contributions of the other musicians on the album: Perrin Cloutier on accordion, Paul Collins on bass, Ben Lanz on trombone, Nick Petree on drums, and Kelly Pratt on horns. Without them, these relatively simple compositions would be far less textured and far less fully realized. This ensemble approach is what gives the album its grand and spacious feel. Fans of A Hawk and a Hacksaw will recognize Heather Trost on violin, and singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten adds backing vocals to several songs.
The album ends with the beautiful, chiming, swaying “Cuixmala.” “I could only smile / I've been alone some time / and all-in-all it's been fine,” sings Condon, tempting us to ask where and why. “And you / you had hope for me, now / I danced all around it somehow / Be fair to me / I may drift awhile / Were it up to me / you'd know why.” This is a difficult and desperate request — that of an uncertain, sorrowful romantic caught in a great current, asking his loved ones to stick by him even though they may not understand why he has to be so distant sometimes, why he has to hang onto something in the waves that so often carries him away. It's a terrible thing to ask of another human being, and it's heart-rending for both sides; but it's this need for space and understanding that drives this gorgeous, extravagant, intimate music. To those of us who are visionaries and idealists willing to sacrifice some of the world we see for the world we want to see, it's almost more than we could hope for: respect instead of fear, love instead of judgment. It's the thing we can only have in dreams, only rarely expect from others, and yet, it's the thing we need more than any other.
Standout Tracks: “The Rip Tide,” “A Candle's Fire,” “Santa Fe,” “Cuixmala”
For Fans Of: John Cale, Calexico, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Mountain Goats, The Flaming Lips, Sufjan Stevens