Beirut and Sharon Van Etten: some thoughts on transition and the beauty of truth’s transmission through sound
He got me with a segment of sound. Then she snuck a sip of my soul with the way she worked a word. Both moments were so stirring they entered immediately into my file of favorites.
I can’t remember the first time I heard a song from the band Beirut, or when it was, exactly, but my adherence to all things Zach Condon began when his trumpet tooted. It was Elephant Gun, its sound coursing through my headphones in the early evening, while I was out on the porch at the house I grew up in.
I’d downloaded this song on a whim, and with my head pleasantly thrumming to nicotine’s tune, I was in the mood for good tunes. (I don’t smoke anymore, but God do I miss the state it put me in to listen to new music.)
Started by Condon as a teenager with songs he’d record onto a four-track in his Santa Fe bedroom, Beirut burst forth in the mid-aughts, fully-formed and ready to take the indie world by storm. I wasn’t aware of it then, but upon my first listen of their debut record, Gulag Orkestar, I understood the appeal. Here was a ticket to a more ancient part of the world.
A mainline, by way of sense memory, to the Balkan band I’d pass some mornings bustling through a corridor of the Chatelet metro station in Paris.
It’s never words, with Condon—well, that’s not entirely true, as some of his lyrics do resonate like stones skipped across still waters—but for me, they will always come second to his sound. Take the opening salvo in his song The Rip Tide; the sinister tyranny of solitude explained through that crashing wave of noise.
It’s what Anthony Lane once wrote of Buster Keaton: it’s not that Condon doesn’t like words; he just doesn’t need ’em. Condon has said something to that effect: that he often wishes music didn’t need lyrics. Which makes sense, since he seems to say it all with sound.
For his latest album with Beirut, Gallipoli, it was the first listen of the eponymous song that sucked me in. I was on a plane to JFK in February, scheduled to see the first two shows of Beirut’s tour at Brooklyn Steel, and I thought I’d downloaded his new album. Turns out, only the first two songs had come through. But that was enough. I went back and forth between them for hours. The layering on Gallipoli—Farfisa organ, then those onrushing trumpets—felt like dipping one’s toes into a warm bath. Home. There was a coziness of the familiar; sounds from past albums placed adroitly in the context of something new.
How best to describe the state his sound puts me in. Saudade; perhaps profondeur. Strange how words tend to come easiest in another language. Something about the limitations of my vocabulary forced upon me when thinking outside the bloated mass I’ve accumulated in English. Limitation propelling creativity. In my own small way, it’s an homage to Condon, who seems to pick up the language wherever in the world he lives. It filters into his lyrics. There’s never any excess.
English is what drew me to Sharon van Etten—or more precisely, her ability to manipulate certain words within it to devastating effect. My first encounter with her music came three years ago, while I was down and out in Baltimore, putting the final nails in the coffin of a sputtering career in sports journalism. It was bright and mid-morning in early March when One Day popped up on my weekly picks Spotify playlist. I’d spend the next hour walking around the city’s harbor caught in a daze, that song on repeat.
I know I said it was a word that got me, and while in the song Van Etten does stretch out ‘back’ on a couple occasions, it’s her octave-spanning sigh before One day, I’ll be fine with that that sent me spinning. Here was a sound of settling, adulthood’s road to resignation, dashed dreams growing smaller in the rear-view mirror. This is growing up, I thought. And what an awful sound.
I soon learned through a little research that Condon and Van Etten are friends, having met in the latter years of the past decade while both were living in Brooklyn. Condon provided guest vocals on Van Etten’s song “We Are Fine”, which they have said served as a cathartic exercise in addressing their respective social anxieties.
That Condon has spoken honestly of his anxiety, crippling at the worst of times, and the constant struggle to cope with it, was a comfort for me. There is no eradicating something that is a part of you, but you need not cower before it. One of the most heartening things I remember reading about Condon is his own description of how the record No No No helped him out of a deep depression. How two of his best friends and bandmates sought him out and got him recording again. There are ways you can work through this thing.
It was adhering to a routine: getting into the studio, making incremental progress, that made him privy to one of life’s great lessons. There is no great push toward the eternal lesson, punctuated by a grand orchestral swelling, everything falling into place, rosy from here till whenever you end.
Rather, its brilliance resides in its simplicity—albeit one often arrived at through great difficulty. A compilation of stones; one on top of the other. Build a little, each day. In Condon’s case, it’s the routine he’s had since he was a teen: working on a sequence of sound until he finds one that gives him goosebumps. Then, he’s good.
Like the best of Condon’s arrangements; this truth he found is simple — but only because of the work he put it in to whittle it down to that point.
I mentioned I flew to NYC for those first two concerts of Beirut’s 2019 tour. It felt like a pilgrimage. Brooklyn in mid-winter. So, a very, very, very cold pilgrimage. But so much fun. Each night, Condon and co. played more than 20 songs from the catalogue. The crowd was in rapture.
Coming back to the house I was staying in after that first concert, flushed from a hard half-hour bike ride, I looked up some of the reviews of Gallipoli. I was surprised at the reception, which was…tepid. As I pedaled my way over the Manhattan bridge the following morning, for some coffee and a film in the Big Apple, I thought about why it had been taken this way.
Criticism seems to haven fallen into the social media phenomenon, that prick or frisson of dopamine pleasure. Rushing to post a review to generate traffic to your site. Care and curation, the time it took to create a record, as opposed to a series of paragraphs based upon a couple listens to a record. The artists sits with his work for months if not years before releasing it into the world. Why is it never the same with criticism?
Criticism should be a guide. Not the final say in any matter, particularly when it comes to a medium as subjective as music is. Consider an individual song. Based upon my predilections, and perhaps most importantly, my past experience, or current surrounding, my experience of a song will be markedly different from your own. Maybe a song won’t hit me, or fully come into view, until years down the road.
Van Etten’s new album, Remind Me Tomorrow, has been praised precisely because she has embraced a new set of sounds, electrifying her act. Condon, meanwhile, is seen as stumbling through stasis.
In Condon’s newest album there is a concerted melange of his past influences (Farfisa organ!) with some of the new directions he’s taken in music in albums, perhaps beginning with The Rip Tide. His songs often seem like something wound down to the point where it is coiled to make maximum impact.
So how do you quantify that? How do you square the intent of great art, to re-instill your perhaps-faltering faith, or provide a context in which you feel fine in the realm of eternity. This is the kind of thing that could last. As a great philosopher once said, “Beethoven had his critics, too; see if you can name three of them.”
One of my favorite Condon moments came in a YouTube interview with FaceCulture ahead of the release of The Rip Tide, in which the interviewer asked if he could describe the Beirut sound. Couldn’t express it in words, Condon said with a smile, but I could play it for you.
And then, I remember coming out of a theater after having laughed till my ribs were fit to burst at Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip to Spain. Wiping tears from my eyes, I will never forget falling behind a couple, the man vehemently railing against the film. WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT? THERE WAS NO PLOT! WHAT A WASTE OF TWO HOURS!
How could our experiences have been so different? Did it come down to our receptivity, at that particular time on that particular day?
Where would criticism enter into this equation? It certainly serves a vital role, a kind of check against the excesses of fame and fortune. That was the case in the most devastating moment I saw in a film last year: Christopher Abbott (a journalist) to Natalie Portman’s starlet in Vox Lux. The way she had grown unaccustomed to hearing any unkind word in the bubble she’d eased herself into. Any hint of self-examination has flown the coop; truth will be too hard to face.
I kept thinking about the disconnect between my experience with Condon’s new album, and the collective shrug of the shoulders it has received critically. Then, that tepid reception compared to the electric crowd at his shows.
Condon is so good at staying nimble; he recently moved from Brooklyn to Berlin, in search of something new. He’s lived all over the world. How good he is at drawing chalk around what once defined him, and moving on as something new. Of course this is an incomplete metaphor; you are a walking, talking mass of contradiction amassed from what you have been, but there is always room for improvement in this paradox. Condon finds it in sound.
Over the course of those two evenings at Brooklyn Steel, he conversed with the crowd in in German, French, Portuguese, and of course English, sometimes responding to muttered musings and call-and-response. That was a special element of these shows: the sheer variety of the people making up that crowd.
I saw Van Etten at the Fillmore on a dreary, wet night later in February. It had been a strange day, filled with firsts, and I was uniquely ready for a captivating concert experience. As I came out of that famous venue, after the show, I wound my concert poster tightly, and snug it into my slicker for the walk back to the car. The day had been a wreck, but it had been salvaged by what Van Etten had unlocked for me.
Once again, it was the particular emphasis she placed on a word. Like Michelle Williams adding another syllable to the word broken, in Manchester by the Sea, tragedy palpably altering your chemical makeup—here in the form of vocal delivery. With Van Etten on this newest album, it’s the way she elongates love in No One’s Easy to Love. Cutting it into two, the back end a cathartic shout. It’s a scream that encapsulates so much of what this album is about. A look back, a recognizance of what came before.
The entire album puts me in a daze. The thunderclap of Seventeen (you’ll know it when you hear it), the ethereal dream state of Jupiter 4. And that opening song—not just a nod to the past, but a realization that past experience can inform new ventures. You don’t have to feel bound to it. You can opt for something new.
During Condon’s opening concert at Brooklyn Steel, a voice in the crowd called out for “East Harlem.” Condon would accept a request for Serbian Kocek that same evening, but for this particular tune, such a staple for so many Beirut fans, he demurred. Politely so. He said nothing, but bowed and offered his hands in prayerful supplication. Don’t hold this against me, but I want to play something new.
For both artists, no need to refrain from entering into the unknown of what’s ahead.