On the same day I downloaded In Rainbows, I also entered the physical world and went to a bricks-and-mortar record store and bought Beirut’s newest (among other purchases). I’ve been meaning to write some kind of formal review of it but I’ve been distracted by my first impression, which was this: Zach Condon has nailed his sound, but he’s yet to fully nail his song. To some extent that first impression has been proven wrong (kinda) with increased listens: The Flying Cup Club is far better than Gulag Orkestrar, despite my three favorite Beirut songs being on the earlier album (rounded out by numerous songs I could do without). But even though Condon’s songcrafting skill is improving, I still can’t totally get beyond that distinction: the song vs. the sound.
It’s a balance any band worth their salt has to achieve. It’s elementary: if your sound—the aesthetic quality of the noises produced by guitars, rhythm section, keyboards, voice, and combinations therein—is strong, then you’ll stand apart from the rest. But if you’ve got no song—the skill of lyric, structure, emotion, and delivery—then you’ve got no foundation.
If all bands had to be positioned on some sort of spectrum—song at the extreme left, sound at the extreme right—the most rewarding, most the time, would be somewhere in the middle. Sigur Ros skews toward sound, but then again their best album (Agaetis Byrgun) is the one that wraps their sonic textures around chord progressions and vocal melodies (just listen to "Sven-g-Englar": its two best qualities are the melody of the chorus and the sudden chord change 2/3 in). Bob Dylan is considered by many to be the greatest songwriter in pop history, yet many find him unlistenable: it’s his sound, not his song, that repels.
You get the idea. No matter how traditional or experimental an artist is, you can listen to an album and make the distinction.
So my brilliant wife and I were driving through Los Angeles one evening, listening to the new Beirut for the first time, maybe not giving it our full attention but listening nonetheless and forming opinions.
“So this one’s supposed to have a big French influence.”
“He’s not in Eastern Europe anymore?”
“Guess he’s done with the Balkans. He took his muse to France.”
“I don’t know, pretty much sounds like the last one.”
It wasn’t that reductive, but more or less that’s how the conversation started. “I like this album,” my wife said, “but if he does another one like this I think I’m done with him.”
Why is that? What is it about an artist that can sate us after one or two albums, even if the output doesn’t necessarily get worse? It’s the sound. Sound doesn’t have staying power without song. (One could argue vice versa as well.)
We started talking about the French/Balkan influence, our conversation colored by the New York Times article I mentioned last week—“authenticity,” ancestral roots, whether any of that matters. I don’t think the latter matters, but I think the question of authenticity sticks to some artists but not to others as a direct correlation to their ability to let the song, not the sound, be their foundation. Perhaps inevitably, Paul Simon’s Graceland came up. That is one the albums of my life, not only because it’s good but because I’ve been listening to it since I was in sixth grade and it's forever entwined with too many great and mundane and iconic memories. But I digress. The reason Graceland is so good is because Simon never let world-music inclinations subsume his songs. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “Under African Skies,” “I Know What I Know”—they could all, technically, be stripped of the African influence and still be pretty terrific. On the other hand, it is that African influence that sets Graceland apart from—and above—every other Paul Simon album. The song and the sound, balanced.
Condon doesn’t achieve such a seamless integration. If you took away the horns and warbly chanting, not every track on The Flying Cup Club would survive. That’s not to say that means it’s not a good album, but it might explain my wife’s reaction—“I don’t need another one of these.” I have the same tentative feeling toward Sufjan Stevens. It’s that sound fatigue that keeps me from purchasing any album by Stevens that doesn’t have a state in its title. He’s a fantastic songwriter and has a unique sound, but too often he leans on the latter without confidence in the former. In my book he’s got one more album to prove his sound serves his songs and not the other way around.
Maybe it’s because I bought Beirut and Radiohead on the same day, but my first impression of Beirut has informed the way I’ve been listening to everything in the last month: I’m listening to everything with “the song vs. the sound” in mind. That might explain my reaction to In Rainbows, since I think Radiohead is most interested in exploring the sophistication of their sound than giving into the gratification of their songs. No, they don’t need to go back to writing pop tunes that would fit better on The Bends, but they could consider what effect each and every one of those washes of sound and effected vocals and doubled drum tracks has on the pure, simple pleasure of the song.