Beirut is one of those bands that, for a time, was the soundtrack to my life. It was 2012 and I had dropped out of university for the first time, was dating a girl who was terrible for me, and I loved music that was, what I would describe in my supremely pretentious way: ‘Complex.’ And Beirut, to me, was this, at least as far as their harmonies were concerned. Towards the end of this year, the now-defunct Harvest Festival brought Zach Condon and Co. down from that vague European locale I imagined them spending their time, to Parramatta* of all places. But they cancelled the appearance, and then, disappeared.
Three years later and I’m back doing the degree I dropped out of in 2012, with a different (much better) girl, and I would like to think more open-minded with what I throw on rotation. I came back to Beirut now and then, but the ‘disappearing band’ didn’t figure in my world to any salient extent anymore. So what then am I to make of No No No? There was the single, the title track, that didn’t really tell me anything except “Beirut is still around,” and now I have the album, and given that I don’t really have anything to say about Drake and Future’s What A Time To Be Alive beyond it bangs (but Future bangs harder), here I am reviewing it:
The Beirut we hear on No No No is probably the closest to a regular rock/indie/whatever the band has ever been, and to be perfectly honest, sounds more like Condon’s teenage project Realpeople than the group that recorded The Gulag Orkestar. This is not meant to pass a preemptive judgment on the album (The Gulag Orkestar was released in 2006 and for a recording artist to not change over a period of that length would be bizarre)** but what’s frustrating is that this feels annoyingly safe for a bandleader who, for a time, was selling repackaged Slavic brass band music to hipsters at the height of Vampire Weekend’s power and the myriad other bands of well-dressed boys (they were always boys) that played guitars and harmonized. Where Beirut’s melodies used to feel like pure emotion rendered through a horn section (see ‘On a Bayonet’), here on songs like ‘As Needed’ and ‘Gibraltar’ they’re just melodies that repeat one too many times. Granted, there are moments where gorgeous harmonies are spread across a few bars in songs like ‘At Once,’ but like ‘No No No’ it just feels like a chorus in search of a song.
Maybe I’m being too critical, as the album is not ‘bad’ in the same way that, say, Magna Carta Holy Grail is, but it’s not ambitious like the first bunch of releases (2006-2009) were. Christ, even the comparatively far less interesting forth album, The Rip Tide (2011), was ambitious in its own way. And I did want to like it. Here, however, we’re given songs so inoffensive that they just slip by, with me finding myself already at the uninspiring key/tempo change in ‘Fener’ wondering where the seven minutes that make up ‘Perth’ and ‘Pacheco’ went.
The waltz-metered melancholy of No No No’s final song, ‘So Allowed,’ while not redeeming the album is, admittedly, well worth listening to. Here is Condon’s voice actually working its esoteric way around a melody, here are textures like quilts made by Yia-yias, here is the actual development of musical ideas, but all this ends with the song. And I am left wondering what could have been.
* Parramatta is approximately a one hour train ride from Sydney proper, generally there’s not much that entices one to head out there.
** Unless you’re AC/DC, in which case you’re sustained by some unholy mixture of ignorance and genius that I do not understand, but it’s lucrative, and I can appreciate that.