Art and artifice: a review of “Gallipoli” by Beirut

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Rating: 8/10

Even after over a decade of album releases, Beirut has remained true to the galavanting geographical freedom that first defined them. Singer and auteur Zach Condon continues to put out well-traveled, horn-soaked, odes to yesteryear that, if you suspend your disbelief for a moment, possess an impossible ability to transport you – across times, continents, and all those other pesky absolutes of birth. Changes have been subtle with each record, yet with “Gallipoli” we have arrived miles away from “Gulag Orkestar,” his gypsy manifesto and breakout album, which is where Condon first cultivated this world musical exploration we call Beirut.

The striking thing is that Condon grew up in New Mexico, worlds away from the European settings which first enraptured him. Such is the way of fancy, of obsession, even if it is eons away from our “real” lives. Through his art, though, he has sought out and discovered these fantastical geographies with each album.

At this point in his career, though, he has the luxury of seeing if it all fits into the fantastical geography in his head. Condon did, after all, record “Gallipoli” in rural Italy, which betrays much of what Beirut is all about: musical journeys through the places of the world as we imagine them. His obsession with Indiana Jones and Tin Tin are all part of that image – swashbuckling, romantic world travel and a melting pot of influence which allows him to handle the rhythms and melodies of the world as if they were a treasure he alone had unearthed.

Though not a reference to the Mel Gibson movie about World War 1 (which, in spite of Pitchfork, is not terrible. It’s actually quite a great film by the legendary Peter Weir), “Gallipoli,” like the whole Beirut project, romanticizes the past. Condon, on a road trip through Italy, runs into a procession of brass instruments in a city called Gallipoli. This isn’t the Gallipoli we are all thinking of, which is in Turkey on a different part of the Mediterranean. Still, the title suggest the famous war battle, even if Condon didn’t intend it, just as much as his music suggests an approximation of the impressions of the past.

These aren’t the Gallipolis we’re thinking of, but only named after them, just like a song can be written in a classic style, but in the end is only an approximation of that style. His music was never Balkan folk, just an artistic impression, a fancy that enraptured him, and ultimately an artifice he built with blood, sweat, and tears for the world to see him through.

This whole album, and the music of Beirut in general, has me thinking more about art and its role in creating an artifice of its own. Artists have always looked into the past to find world-building materials for their own visions of reality, ones they can layer on like brick and mortar to block out the stark reality of, say, rural New Mexico or an out-of-the-way town in Texas. In this way a parallel of Condon might be found in our beloved Wes Anderson, whose own highly fantastical films weaseled their way into our hearts with such outrageous artifice as to encourage a complete abandonment into the world of his creation (I mean, have you seen “The Grand Budapest Hotel?”).

Now, for the genre label. You could still place “Gallipoli” confidently in the influence of the twee and baroque pop scenes (which had a revival around Beirut’s rise in the mid to late 2000s). Looking back, twee, and more largely, baroque pop produced some of the most innocent and guileless indie music of the era. Like Belle & Sebastian, another staple of the times. Beirut has felt the need to evolve, though there are still threads holding them to their roots in Fellini films and scratchy Balkan folk music.

Yet it’s not the same Beirut. This is poppier, more refined, and relies more on organ and atmospherics than dripping horn lines and frenzied Balkan beats. It takes bravery to recreate yourself with each album, even if during the process Condon has lost the almost all the messy and raw flavor of his beginnings, music which at that time seemed to almost swell and burst inside the sheer ecstasy of its own sound.

“Gallipoli,” is less full of that ecstatic energy and instead offers us a more chilled out Beirut. This doesn’t bother me as much as it might others. The album is consistently pleasant throughout, and even allows its world beat and atmospheric stylings to culminate in a few gorgeous, awe-inspiring moments. The most energetic track is undoubtedly “Landslide,” which soars skyward in a deft glide of organ and makes full, evocative use of Condon’s operatic voicings.

The beats on the album, drawing in Balearic, Balkan, and other world influences, are a noticeable hook that keeps me coming back for more. This is the type of album you could put on at a party and keep everyone happy. The songs easily melt and assimilate themselves into the atmosphere of any scene, and, a few cocktails in, you might even see a few people swaying to and fro to the incessant rhythm. Standout instrumental track “Corfu” is one of the best in that category, manifesting the a cool ocean breeze with its chill stylings and laid back syncopation.

All the best songs on “Gallipoli” highly rely on rhythm, in fact. “Family Curse” crafts a potent emotional atmosphere, which it ultimately allows the beat to build upon as it transitions from drum machine to insatiable shuffle. Though this song and a few other tracks illustrate a weak and mostly ineffectual lyrical effort, for me the album doesn’t suffer too much because of it. “Gallipoli” is about the atmosphere of a place, or more specifically, about the ambient presence of our own fantastical geography in the world, which is pretty much beyond words anyway.

Ultimately, “Gallipoli” is another satisfying release for Beirut, another splendid journey into the mixed drink of art and artifice. For uninhibited geographical fantasy travel, it’s another one-way ticket to wherever you want to go, past or present, which is what Beirut has been all about from the very beginning.

 

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