A soft, tribal beat opens No No No, the latest studio album by Beirut. A simple piano riff emerges to accompany the djembe, and as the low, melodic voice of singer Zach Condon layers into the mix, you realize the song doesn’t really need anything more than that. And for the rest of the piece, the simple combination of piano, voice and beat is all we hear.
This restraint is evident throughout the album, which, at only nine songs and 29 minutes, focuses on simple piano-driven compositions and melodic lines. The record plays like a single concept, soothing and soft but also haunting in its hollowness, speaking to Condon’s emotional turmoil, as he was facing a divorce while writing the album.
Beirut is known for compositions influenced by world music and carried melodically by a reliance on brass and piano, primarily. This is especially true on this record, where the simple arrangements allow for rich horn harmonies. There is something especially unique about the horns in Beirut’s music: Nowhere is the shouty harshness of trumpets in common marching bands. The layers of trumpet and horn feel more like they hum, blending together like a chorus of chamber singers. The base of staccato piano chords provides the scaffolding on which the horns carry the emotional content of the songs.
And yet, the album feels like an unfinished concept — something to be fleshed out. At certain moments, it feels more like a stripped or acoustic set than a produced record. The plain style is both comforting and refreshing in the opening numbers, but as the album progresses, the need for expansion and exploration grows stronger. While the simplicity and softness of the pieces go a long way to set a mood and incite an emotional response, that response is singular. In the same way the album lacks breadth in arrangement, it lacks breadth in emotional exploration. Especially considering Beirut’s typically large range of instrumentation, there was the potential for a larger, more complex piece, which was never pursued.
Perhaps that’s not as bad of a thing as it sounds, though. The brevity of the album, in a way, redeems it. The final product is more like an understated symphony — an album to be had on vinyl, to be played straight through on a fall afternoon, when the songs become not distinct entities but unseparated components of a single statement. And in that lens, it becomes a truly enjoyable experience.
Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected].