Beirut music sounds like the fuzzy memory of a wedding involving distant relatives, where you were swept up in folk dances and traditional drinking games, and which left you, through your hangover haze, convinced that these kin live richer, more soulful lives than your own — and if you could just hold on to something of the experience, it might, y’know, change you, make you better, less anxious, happier. It’s tremendously beautiful music, and profoundly sad, but also full of hope, because sad beauty can do that.
The group revolves around Zach Condon, whose voice is winsomely handsome: There are traces of Morrissey in his phrasing and parts of his lower register, Rufus Wainwright in his upper range, though his delivery’s more low-key than either. And he’s always had a thing for brass band music: Balkan, Mexican, Italian. It’s not such an odd combination. Jostling, mournful Balkan-tinged brass was enshrined as indie-rock gesture back in the late Nineties via Neutral Milk Hotel (whose Jeremy Barnes later played with Beirut). Condon’s built an entire world with globetrotting horn charts at or near the heart, and Gallipoli revisits it with some of his most emotive songwriting and singing.
The overture of the title track is hallucinatory, conjuring sad Salvation Army bands playing for coins, or war-torn Eastern European village halls, with clattering percussion mapping archaic jigs, Moog and Farfisa touches for 20th-century color. “We tell tales to be known/or to be spared from sorrow,” Condon croons, perhaps conscious of the impossibility of either, yet throwing himself into the attempt anyway.
Currently based in the indie-rock outpost of Berlin (Bob Mould is another resident expat), the LP was recorded partly there, partly in the Apulia region of Southern Italy, and partly in Condon’s old stomping ground of New York. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gallipoli is about dislocation. “Varieties of Exile” seems to include acute existentialism in its list, whereas the dreamy instrumental “Corfu,” named for the Greek island, vaguely echoes Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness.” That segues into “Landslide,” not a Fleetwood Mac cover but a lament involving a natural disaster “back home” — a metaphor, perhaps? — with more Moog, here recalling the ‘70s work of Brian Eno, who has also made memorable music in Berlin (see David Bowie’s Low and Heroes). “Family Curse” echoes ’70s Eno as well, specifically the chintzy syndrums on “Sombre Reptiles,” then blossoms into an ecstasy of minimalist horn patterns.
In a lovely closing cascade of allusions, “We Never Lived Here” also suggests classic minimalism, Richard Landry’s horn work on Philip Glass’s Einstein On The Beach in particular. “We Never Lived Here” is a song how someone can feel centered even in a place where they have no history, but for the one they’re creating right now, minute by minute, like every immigrant with determination and a vision.