Album review: Beirut’s ‘Gallipoli’

Almost 15 years into their existence, the globe-hopping indie folk outfit deliver some of their most intricate, subtly brilliant music yet.
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'Gallipoli' / 4AD

Artist: Beirut

Album Title: Gallipoli

Label: 4AD

Release Date: Feb. 1, 2019

At 32, Beirut’s Zach Condon isn’t exactly what you’d call an old-timer. But he’s had his fair share of turmoil; prior to the release of 2015’s No No No, he had just gone through a divorce and been hospitalized for tour-related exhaustion. Suffice it to say that he’s far removed from the New Mexico-born kid who dropped out of school at 17, traveled across Europe, and started a band.

Gallipoli, the globe-trotting indie-folk outfit’s fifth album, bears the mark of Condon’s newfound grip on mortality. It dwells frequently on the impermanence of our humanity and of all things. Granted, the record doesn’t totally abandon the melancholy-splashed, brass-driven chamber pop of earlier releases. But there’s a particularly world-weary quality to the group’s sound here, as well as Condon’s dulcet baritone. They sound more reserved, more restrained, than ever before.

It All Started With An Organ

That’s hardly a bad thing, though. In the deceptively simple construction of Gallipoli, the band delivers some of its most subtly brilliant music yet. To the casual listener, these understated songs might read as dull and listless at first. But subsequent revisits reveal touches the intricate arrangements and flourishes hidden within. The melodic loops discreetly worm their way into your brain and refuse to leave. Clearly, Condon isn’t finished experimenting just yet.

Condon builds much of the record around the bittersweet, creaking gurgle of his Farfisa organ. He wrote the bulk of the first two Beirut albums on the same instrument. The sprightly tones that kick off “When I Die,” appropriately, sound like the warm greeting of a long-lost friend. With lush, stately brass and thumping drums rising just above the surface, Condon embraces his final moments with quiet dignity (“What would death steal that would harm me?”)

The title track, penned in the Italian town that gives it its name, explores our human need to tell stories. Condon, his voice passing through a robotic filter, ponders his own legacy over the stompy 6/8 beat: “We tell tales to be known / Or be spared the sorrow…What will be left when you’re gone?” On “I Giardini,” he declares, “With chalk, I outline my affairs / And that is how I disappear.”

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the lyrics here. Condon, after all, has always said that he builds his songs around melodies, the words coming along later in his stream-of-consciousness process.

But oftentimes, the melodies speak to the emotions within the words. Take the sunny, Beach Boys-inspired single “Landslide,” for example. Condon, who’s rarely returned stateside since the 2016 election, claims the song is not political. And yet, its summery atmosphere, combined with the celebratory lyrics, can’t help but betray a feeling of having escaped a sinking ship and reached safety onshore.

Melodically, the record never ceases to surprise in countless ways. As is often true on any Beirut record, the group says the most by saying nothing at all. Gallipoli features some of their strongest instrumentals thus far. “On Mainau Island” is a twinkly, shoegaze-y dreamscape, full of warbling space-echo organ and Moog Voyager tones. The majestic harmonies on “Gauze für Zah” give way to a meditative three-minute ambient that marks the record’s midpoint.

“Corfu” is buzzy, lounge-leaning beach exotica with an ominous undercurrent—the closest Beirut has ever come to chintzy self-parody, and yet it totally works. And aptly-named closer “Fin” ends the record on a hopeful note after the sobriety of “We Never Lived Here,” with fluttering synths and soothing aaahhs contributing to the sense of peace and catharsis.

Already a masterful arranger, Condon scatters some of his trickiest sonic coordinations throughout the record. The awe-inspiring intro to “Light in the Atoll” skillfully meshes layer upon layer of horns together, all building up to an explosive chorus. “We Never Lived Here” sets up staccato trumpet lines against arpeggiated synths to glorious effect. Just when you think a track has overstayed its welcome, in comes another monumental blast of brass that seizes all your attention and emotion.

Gallipoli is a beautifully bummed-out experience that perfectly evokes the thrills of one of Condon’s transcontinental detours, should you choose to let it sweep you away. He channels his signature quirks and anxieties into a mature, focused, and lovely collection of songs. Despite the heavy subject matter, it’s far less a death lament than a celebration of life and the art of being alive. In the end, that’s all you can really ask for from a Beirut record.

Rating: 8.4/10

Best Tracks: “Gallipoli,” “Landslide,” “Family Curse”

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