It has been four years since Zach Condon-led Beirut released “The Rip Tide” to critical acclaim. “The Rip Tide” was a work of rare maturity, paring back the occasional instrumental excess and melodrama found in Beirut’s previous work to create a sound that was rich but never pompous. Unfortunately, this tautening impulse manifests itself in the band’s new album “No No No” as a sort of musical listlessness. Arrangements are smaller than ever; so is the music’s charm. And with a play time sitting just under a half hour, one almost gets the impression that Condon could barely pull together enough material for a full album.
The album’s instrumentation decisions are baffling. Condon is, above all else, a brass player, and one of the unique components of Beirut’s sound was a heavy preference for magnificent brass sections over more typical pop arrangements. This preference prevented the band’s often keening melodies from becoming cold or whining; Condon’s trumpet and flugelhorn gave warmth and grandeur, transforming what might sound like mere complaint into tragedy. In “No No No,” brass has been largely pushed into the background in favor of keyboards and percussion. Trumpets are still trotted out for muted appearances in short episodes, but overall the feel is not very Beirut-like and not very exciting.
The album’s titular single, “No No No,” is far and away the best track in the collection. Like most of the other songs, it is built around a repeated groove with little elaboration. The sophisticated instrumentation (featuring horns more prominently than elsewhere on the album) and the charm of the melody itself, which displays a cheer that is uncustomary for the band, rescue it from dullness. Similarly, “At Once,” while structurally very simple, displays the judicious and tender alternation between sparseness and lushness that made “The Rip Tide” a work of such beauty. “As Needed” is a lovely instrumental piece with a guitar-centered arrangement that, while entirely atypical of Beirut, is charming just the same.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album is largely indifferent and includes at least one truly unpleasant piece: “Perth,” whose bumpy electric piano riff will be uncannily familiar to anyone who has ever been put on hold by an automated answering service. The album features none of the sonic ambition of the band’s previous work—many of the songs feel like themes that were never actually developed into proper compositions. “Pacheco” and “So Allowed” sound like abandoned Ima Robot outtakes overlaid with Condon’s plaintive vocals. Flirtation with electronic music is not new for Condon—the EP “March of the Zapotec/ Holland” experimented aggressively with it—but this new work lacks the vitality of those prior excursions. At its worst moments, “No No No” feels like the music piped into waiting rooms: not quite bad, but not quite something you would ever play at home either. It is neither magnificent nor intimate, but something in between, holding the listener at an affable but impersonal and almost bureaucratic distance. It is the sort of music that should be played in the offices of insurance agents. “We’re all pleasant and well-meaning people here,” it says, “but let’s not have too much fun, either.”Taken together, the album has the flavor of a pulpy book: a small collection of clippings and scribblings, some of which are rather good, some of which are not. There is perhaps enough material in “No No No” for a good EP, but not quite enough for even a short album. “No No No” is not a dreadful work, but it is disappointing. Four years is a long time to wait for elevator music.