2 Dec 2023

Review: Hadsel by Beirut

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 2 December 2023

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Zach Condon

Photo: Bandcamp

The songs of Zach Condon have always had an international flavour. The New Mexico musician named his solo project-turned-band Beirut, after the Lebanon capital, and has openly drawn influence from music around the world since his start in 2006. 

Recent albums have seen him take this further, travelling to foreign locales to write and record. He’s someone who takes risks - on his 2019 release Gallipoli running everything through broken amps and tape machines - but despite this has a songwriting style that’s familiar and fixed. That’s not a complaint though, because his way with melody is so consistently beguiling. 

After the success of his first few albums, there was a vague critical backlash against Condon, his use of older song modes and archaic instruments seen as novelty rather than substance. In the years since he’s proven that’s not true, as he keeps outputting powerful work, led by his mournful, yearning voice.

The story of this album, Hadsel, has a rather romantic beginning. Condon was suffering from persistent laryngitis, so travelled to Norway, during an icy and dark part of the year, and set up in a cabin on an island called Hadsel. 

The cabin housed a pump organ, and he ended up using it to write the album. You can hear it on multiple tracks. Through the owner of the cabin, he met Oddvar, a collector and repairer of rare instruments. Through Oddvar, he gained access to the local church’s organ. 

He also had a baritone ukulele, percussion, drum machines, a French horn, and an old Austrian tape machine. He went back to his previous mode of performing and recording every part himself. When you compare the results to his prior album Gallipoli, which was partly recorded in Italy, they’re decidedly less sunny, and much more frosty.

The drum machines add a hint of modernity to a record that feels, as usual, like it has at least one foot in the past, although he favours patches that have been around since the seventies. Adding to his arsenal were several rigs of modular synthesisers, similarly aged and analog, but still the most contemporary sound here. You can hear them weaving through tracks like ‘Stokmarknes’.

In 2008, a then-21-year-old Condon brought Beirut to New Zealand, performing at the sadly departed Kings Arms Tavern in Auckland. After the main set, he announced on stage that they’d perform the encore outside, and he and his bandmates proceeded to walk out the back to the garden bar, and play completely unplugged on top of a table. 

It was one of those moments that convinces you that you’re watching a rare talent.

Since then Condon’s album’s have become part travel guide, as he sees, and names songs after, various foreign places. But that core of something special remains, and he still delivers remarkable songs.