Indie-rock band Beirut originally began as the solo act of frontman Zach Condon, who wrote and recorded the band’s debut album mostly by himself. After the record had some success, Condon recruited some friends to make a live debut, and the band Beirut was born. The band quickly found success with its well-rounded instrumentation. It used horns, strings and keyboards to achieve a folksy, yet full and nuanced sound that displayed influences ranging from traditional European folk to electronic. Four well-received albums and several EPs later, Condon and Beirut were more successful than ever, touring extensively at increasingly larger venues until Condon put an end to the band, citing both physical and creative exhaustion. “No No No” is Condon’s eagerly anticipated return to the music industry, and marks the band’s return to recording after four years.
Beirut’s “No No No” achieves a sound that is instantly pleasant and recognizably thoughtful in its instrumental choices. The subtle use of electronic sounds combined with traditional instruments makes the album feel like a fresh take on an old concept. Unfortunately, the repetitive rhythm of certain songs often blurs the line between structural and downright boring. Regardless, the album is a pleasure, and goes great with a morning coffee, or perhaps a nice book.
The album opens with “Gibraltar,” one of the strongest tracks on the album. The tune draws heavily on the band’s strengths, opening with a cheerful drum beat that is soon accompanied by a piano motif that lasts the length of the song. Condon’s rich vocals are understated, but they fit nicely into the generally relaxed vibe.
The song is followed by the title track of the album, “No No No.” It is one of the few songs where Condon’s lead vocals actually feel like they lead the song, despite the bare minimum of lyrics. He implores an unknown lover, telling her that “if we don’t go now, we won’t get very far.” (To put “bare minimum of lyrics” into perspective, the previous line is one-fourth of the total lyrics in the song). The follow-up track “At Once” falls into much of the same vein, with strong vocals that occupy the bare minimum of language, but still deliver in emotional content.
“August Holland” brings more strong vocals, but Condon’s strength also starts to become his weakness. The strength of his voice creates what I like to call the “Hozier effect.” His voice is so unique, distinctive and simply powerful that overuse begins to draw attention away from the rest of the song. Regardless, the sweet, haunting woodwind melodies work with Condon’s lyrics to evoke a gentle sense of longing.
Perhaps Condon realizes the effect of his vocals, because the entirely instrumental and appropriately titled, “As Needed” follows the first vocally led trio of songs. The music stirs up gentle, nuanced emotions, with two recognizable sections trading melody lines. The first consists of a string section backing up light ukulele melodies with a violin lead. These sections trade off with the piano and drum-set rhythm that is omnipresent in this album, but with a violin lead in this song.
The next two songs, “Perth” and “Pacheco,” are pleasant, use keyboard motifs to create a playful background for Condon’s relaxed vocal work. In “Perth,” the use of the horn (sparse as it is in this album compared to previous ones) does wonders to differentiate it tonally from the rest of the album.
“Fener,” the album’s penultimate piece, again uses the piano and drum-set formula. However, a mid-song tempo change and the use of haunting, ethereal background vocals do much to bring the album’s general cheerful mood into something a bit more introspective.
Introspection seems to be the theme of the denouement of “No No No,” as “So Allowed” begins with a thoughtful intro, with a subtle, tight bassline complimenting the piano and drum-set rhythms. The song also hits one of the higher emotional climaxes of the album, with Condon momentarily abandoning his relaxed, distant style of singing. The horns also make a return, giving the album a lively finish and elegantly displaying the band’s ability to balance its sounds across a wide range of instruments.
Interestingly, the album ultimately comes off as almost instrumental; Condon’s lyrics are sparse, often consisting of repetitive single verses and choruses, and performed subtly, with little intention to dominate the song. Unfortunately, the weak lead draws attention to the structurally repetitive nature of the songs. The overused rhythms occasionally make the music come across as unambitious.
However, there is no doubt that Beirut has created a tonally enjoyable album. The tight, consistent structure also serves to create and subsequently fulfill listener expectations. The album especially shines on the more cheerful tracks, where Beirut’s ability to layer instrumentals is used to create excitement rather than melancholy. Condon, however, ultimately had to do more than just please in his return to recording. He delivered on creating an instrumentally enjoyable album, but came up lacking in lyrical ambition.