It is always jarring when a band you grew up (or grew into) begins to slide into mediocrity. Sometimes the band ‘sells-out.‘ Sometimes you discover the band was never not-sold-out in the first place, or sometimes you simply admit they have always kinda sucked. It’s not always a fatal sign, but it almost always leads to some really poor art.
Beirut appears to have just had this moment. Admittedly, I have not fervently followed Beirut, or even traced their influence (however large or small) but, man, the video for the self-titled single off of their forthcoming album “No, No, No” is terrible. The video has been described as “silly,” “goofy,” and “fun” – adjectives that also happen to fit a certain never ending childhood series. The Wes Anderson vibe is understandable and is a hypothetical fit for the music Beirut makes – but it’s hard to be lazier about it than this video. “That trumpet player has gross teeth!” “Oh man, now the organist is using his feet!” It’s a sad turn to see the band make. In the beginning Zach Condon’s bedroom project looked like it had the potential to break out into something bigger and more meaningful. Caught in the waves of baby-blogosphere hype, Beirut appeared ready to inject indie-rock with a “Balkan” influence that managed to create nostalgia for places and times that most people had never seen or been to.
Most of their first release, Gulag Orkestar, creates an atmosphere both melancholic and celebratory. The listener is recovering from a break up he never knew he had. While there was no true “hit” on Gulag Orkestar, “Post Cards from Italy” lyrically fit the theme at its best: lovers who longed for something greater than what they had – sentimentality for a moment that could have been and, in the narrators mind, might still be.
In an early interview, Condon shared a blissfully succinct opinion of modern music:
“There are three ways I see music used in the modern world,” Condon says. “One is for thinkers: They approach it analytically. Then there are people who use music to get a raw attitude out. And then there are people who are simply looking for beauty, for the sentimentality that good music has.” (Link)
Gulag Orkestar was an obvious synthesis of these opinions. Analytically, you could talk about the variety of instrumentation, the range of influence etc. Attitude and sentimentality were more or less synthesized into an atmosphere of nostalgia and beauty. Orkestar is by no means perfect, but it is certainly earnest and thoughtful – it’s easy to see how it caught the attention of so many people.
Contrast Orkestar with Beirut’s latest and it appears as though Beirut has failed to evolved. That’s easy to say after almost ten years, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Musically, “No No No” does little to challenge or change Beirut’s status quo – syncopated organ chords, a shuffling beat and horn breaks. Unfortunately, none of it is interesting. At it’s best, Condon’s horn parts work in tandem with his effusive vocal style. Exaggeration is laid on top of exaggeration and we all feel like dancing. But “No No No” manages to be flat and boring in almost every way possible. Everything sounds tired. Beirut’s music video history is sparse, but previous efforts from “Elephant Gun” and “Post Cards From Italy” do well to match the tone and mood of each song. They accomplish the basic goal of a music video – to add to the viewer/listener’s experience of the art at hand. “No, No, No” is a simple song and rather than try and add any depth or complexity the video is boring and actively makes the song more boring, too. I understand that it is trying to whimsical and “goofy”, but if that’s legitimately your reaction to this video, you should really find some funnier friends. Everyone in the band looks worn out and uninterested. Zach Condon looks like he is overheating and very annoyed. In short, the only reason to watch this video is to either laugh at it (not with it) or to speculate on the why and how of entirely pink interiors.
Musically, things aren’t much better. “No No No” does little to explore – sonically, lyrically, emotionally – any of Beirut’s previous roots. Beirut has never been the strongest band lyrically, but “No No No” takes things to a whole new level. No one appears to know anything, but, man, if they just tried they might get….somewhere….at sometime. Lyrical simplicity is one thing, but “No No No” is just lazy.
In a series of interviews leading up to and following Beirut’s last release, Rip Tide, Condon repeatedly talks about his exhaustion of subject and sound. Rip Tide could have been a fulcrum for Beirut to swing upon. In a different world, the heavy sense of atmosphere and truly powerful emotion present on much of Beirut’s early work would have been transformed into something that spoke with not just great feeling but great craft and precision as well. But so far Beirut has failed to deliver on this possibility, which is why this is all a bit disappointing. The truly great bands that seem tired, or worn out, or just generally less creative than they used to be, had some kind of major peak – something that justifies their place in our pop-culture canon despite making much worse work at the end of their careers. While there is certainly still time for Beirut to make something great it’s hard not to contemplate that it might never come together. It’s hard to succeed, but it’s also hard to see that, apparently, Beirut have stopped trying.