Album Review: Beirut – Gallipoli

I once had a pal that used to play Beirut‘s ‘Elephant Gun’ – or at least the chorus of it – on a ukelele, sat in the garden of their student house, all summer long. Which, even years later, seems like the ideal way to have been introduced to Beirut. In the 13 years since the Sante Fe band’s debut, not a huge amount has changed. They still trade in wistful, monochrome soundscapes. They still seek out locations where conflict and culture collide. They still paint in broad, brassy strokes.

Gallipoli, named for the Italian town rather than the military endeavour, sees Beirut peddling their wares with conviction and dexertity, waving a familiar muscial welcome banner. To say that the band are very much themselves is not to say they’ve not grown, though. Yes, the lonely brass that introduces ‘When I Die’ might be swiftly recognisable, but the vocal intonations of the title track suggest an artist somehow wiser than the writer of Gulag Orkestar, if at same time more world-weary.

‘On Mainau Island’ sees them flexing their creative muscles still further, embracing a digital polyphonia in a plaintive instrumental. ‘Varieties of Exile’ and ‘Gauze fur Zah’ offer up a compelling contrast of tone and rhythm that stops the overall feeling becoming overwhelmingly downcast. ‘Corfu’ displays a compositional verve that could’ve been inspired by Archie Marshall during its early phase before morphing into a convoluted lounge piece.

Beirut remain the same without becoming samey. They don’t repeat themselves, and there’s plenty here for fans old and new to get stuck into. They remain creatively dynamic and observationally astute. Their music, not to mention this album’s tracklisting, continues to construct a sense of a band with global concerns, drawing inspiration from around the world and across history.

But they’re also a band with a very clear aesthetic, one their either unable or unwilling to stray too far from. Their blend of mariachi-tinged indie is both rousing and doleful, and it takes aim at a fundamental sense of nostalgia within the listen that longs not for what was, necessarily, but for what is, somewhere else, or for what should be, if only.

Beirut have struck on a potent formula that’s neither melancholic nor fanciful but perhaps edges towards what the Portuguese call ‘saudade‘ – a longing for something absent that you love but might never have again. There’s a beauty in Beirut’s music that’s either intrinsically fleeting, or else a mere ghost of something you remember feeling somewhere, sometime. Which, I suppose, matches many people’s memories of a pal trying to play a ukelele in the garden of a student flat.

To be able to hold onto that while dallying with the digitisation of a track like ‘On Mainau Island’, or the enveloping ambience of closer ‘Fin’, is a marvellous thing. And something that’s likely to continue to serve them for many records to come.