Flash back to 2006, when Beirut—the musical moniker for musician Zach Condon’s solo project—released its auspicious debut Gulag Orkestar to rapturous reviews. At the time, it didn’t seem absurd to consider the group fellow brethren of Black Kids, Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Which is to say, overhyped; some of those bands were essentially over before they were given a chance to fail.
But Beirut was the product of a lineage in line with classic indie rock. And working with a label keen to allow it to evolve (the small but estimable NYC label Ba Da Bing Records, home to underground legends like The Dead C, Six Organs of Admittance, and Damon & Naomi), both live and on record, was the best decision the group ever made. As the cult of Gulag grew exponentially, and the band’s live shows tightened significantly in lockstep with its burgeoning fanbase, Beirut slowly became one of the seminal indie acts of the ’00s.
And while they’d switch labels (onto the venerable 4AD), their shows would get bigger and more professional, their albums slicker and more polished, the divine fire Zach Condon tapped into from their nascent days remained. A surfeit of charisma didn’t hurt, and his sonorous baritone fit the band’s baroque instrumentation—in thrall to Balkan and Mariach—tinctures like a glove. Beirut became a force, one of the finer bands of the 21st century.
Now the band has decided to look backwards for the new double LP, Artifacts. Culling the 2007 Lon Gisland EP, along with pre-Gulag recordings and assorted singles and B-Sides through the years, Condon cleverly names each side in the album’s liner notes, divided up neatly into four distinct pieces: There’s “Lon Gisland, Transatlantique, O Leãozinho,” “The Misfits,” “New Directions and Early Work,” and “The B-Sides.” Of the four sides, it’s “Lon Gisland…” that’s truly indispensable. Time and distance have a funny way of providing perspective, particularly with EPs, which are rarely given the attention they deserve upon release. Listening now, it’s hard to dispute that it contains some of the best songs Condon’s ever written.
“Elephant Gun” is a fine opening salvo for Artifacts, its resplendent melody coruscating like a roman candle. The revamped version of Gulag hit “Scenic World” is also sublime, its roller-rink keyboard line providing an entirely different feel from the mechanized orchestral pop-inflected original. It’s arguable as to which is superior, but a dramatic reinvention succeeding so spectacularly is a testament to the band’s rapid improvement during those early years. “Transatanique” blithely shimmers, as Condon begs to, “Sing for last call / Sing for last fall,” his woozy, damaged baritone conveying the deterioration of love over the course of time and distance.
The band’s cover of “O Leãozinho,” sung in Portugese, follows, the sheer conviction of his vocals communicating a wide-screen vista of emotions, often rendering lyrics secondary. The crux of his feelings were found in the nuance of expression, a demarcation point for Beirut–they’d become transcendent with or without easily discerned lyrics, managing to inhabit a territory reminiscent of the murky yet enigmatically gorgeous territory of early R.E.M. albums.
Frustratingly, much of Artifacts falls into the “for the trainspotters” category in the annals of Beirut’s catalog, a junk shop hunt which requires a large investment on the part of the listener. Those who make it are rewarded with something pretty damn special, though—see the Wurlitzer-guided sturm und drang of the dazzling reverie “So Slowly,” the pensive, Morricone-esque sweep of “Fisher Island Sound,” and the fulsome piano instrumental “The Crossing.” The addition of Condon’s disarmingly honest liner notes to the package, meted out with equal parts wry humor and candid emotion, provide Artifacts with deeply personal subtext.
That sense of intimacy and honesty extends to the music and beyond. See the accordion-driven jaunt of “Your Sails,” rendered even more affecting via Condon’s reference to the films of Kusturica, recalling a time when music was such an integral part of one’s life, and a means of learning about so many other facets of art and culture. Film, literature, and politics were the name of the game then for bands to discuss, and a gateway for fans’ exposure.
The end of the Our Band Could Be Your Life ethos era was nigh, but Beirut clung to that epochal book’s milieu—a spirit of generosity and belief that what it was creating was greater than the sum of its parts. Things aren’t necessarily worse now, just different. But Artifacts is a fine place to go for a glimpse at what those end-of-an-era times were like. This collection may be a reminder of all they’ve already created, but it also augurs new and daring adventures on the horizon, suggesting the best may be yet to come from this unconventionally populist band, weirdos in a time when pushing boundaries and making people uncomfortable is too often discouraged within their milieu. Just don’t tell them that, though: They’re comfortable being weird, a throwback to the freak scene aesthetic so ubiquitous in NYC pre-Giuliani. So in Life During Covid? Who knows, and who cares? Their imperative is to create, and to evolve or die, an edict Beirut embraces with soulful elan.