In the four years since Beirut’s last album, The Rip Tide, frontman Zach Condon watched his life crumble. Writer’s block clouded his mind, mental and physical exhaustion saw him hospitalized, and he got divorced. For a man so full of life, with a voice that longed to detail its beauty, that toll became monumental. No No No can barely mask his pain. While it waltzes through the usual Beirut indications — warm trumpet, loaded sighs, parade percussion, lush harmonies — it lacks the world music air of their outdoor live sets, of their storytelling, of their spirit. In simpler words, life happened — and, in many ways, life won.
“Everything should be fine/ You’ll find things tend to stand in line,” Condon sings in the first lines of “Gibraltar”. It’s a promising opener and a nod to the one bone that life tossed him: a new relationship with a woman in Istanbul. Tambourines and hand claps accent its optimistic piano chords, but the real return to sound is the band’s coveted staple: Condon’s voice. That iconic tone of the indie 2000s hums with recharged warmth, even in tougher numbers. The innocence of spirited keys and lightweight snare in “Perth” counteracts the song’s autobiographical tale of Condon running from his love despite a bleeding injury — a blatant metaphor for the scars left from his last relationship. The song’s ending measures, with a tidy use of repetition, promise he’ll return home in an hour, securing what stability he’s already recreated. Even the deep longing present in “August Holland” resonates with optimism in the way Condon sings every word. When focused on intertwining his vocal cords with tender chord interplay, No No No can pull off the folk pop Beirut has unabashedly turned to for heat after leaving world music behind.
(Read: Beirut: Breaking Down the Walls)
Condon’s penchant for orchestrating, his most laudable skill, is severely underused here. Saccharine horns flourish on a few tracks with hearty volume. The sole instrumental, “As Needed”, which splits the album in half, ropes in gorgeous strings and contemplative swells. Though not as fully formed as 2007’s “My Family’s Role in the World Revolution” or Gulag Orkestar‘s “Bratislava”, it gets the job done. “Pacheco” doesn’t; R&B waves drag endlessly, encouraged by Condon’s tired vocals pleading for someone to stay. For a slow jam to succeed, it needs to have soul, but “Pacheco” lacks any trace of that. “Fener”, its lyrical reprise, is a final chipper hurrah, a pick-me-up which prioritizes immediacy above all, forgoing fleshed-out instrumentation for a folk pop dead end.
No No No brags of empty opportunities. The album lyrics aren’t frequently very poignant, which, given that Condon was a young musical prodigy when he first uploaded songs to Myspace in 2006, comes less as a surprise in the wake of The Rip Tide, an album whose edges felt rounded off. “No No No”, one of the more musically flavorful tracks, repeats the same three lines over and over: “Don’t know the first thing about who you are/ My heart is waiting, taken in from the start/ If we don’t go now, we won’t get very far.” Condon has undoubtedly gotten back on the songwriting horse, but he got so excited about taking the first step that he’s too busy to keep moving those feet forward in what’s usually a natural progression of wordplay and charm.
It’s strange to feel sad about a set of generally happy songs. It’s as if the romanticism of world music alienates Condon now, its faux European twists too reminiscent of a past he knew and has since waved goodbye to because someone else left him with no other choice. The fact that No No No was recorded during New York’s blizzard-filled winter doesn’t help. It’s clear he’s found new love, but it hasn’t taken hold with that adolescent magic. There’s unfinished wanting; “I want to say you’re mine,” Condon repeats come the end of “So Allowed”. He’s smiling the best he can, but the spirit is stifled, tired. Who can blame him? No No No is agreeable front to back, but it’s miles away from the youthful, heartfelt, inspired work of Beirut’s past — a world that may be too washed over with sadness to ever truly pull exuberance from again.
Essential Tracks: “Gibraltar”, “No No No”, and “August Holland”