Photo: Lina Gaißer / Shore Fire Media

Beirut Returns to His Baroque Pop Origins on ‘Hadsel’

Beirut has turned inward on Hadsel and it’s an affirming, warm kind of music to serve as a soundtrack for the next valley surely coming for us all.

Pompeii Records
10 November 2023

If you, like Zach Condon, get to go to the distant Norwegian island of Hadsel, you’ll also find an octagonal 19th-century church with an organ in it. Condon, who has released music as Beirut since 2006, first saw the organ in the church back in 2019, when his life was in a valley. Or, more appropriately, a fjord. 

At the time, he had to cancel Beirut’s tour due to laryngitis. Serious things like sobriety and divorce were all swirling around him. Not to mention, there wasn’t much sunlight during the days he spent in Hadsel. Instead, he says his time there was marked between each simmering, “hours-long” twilight. 

Over the last four years, he’s taken those initial ideas born from his time spent on the island and composed full arrangements, resulting in Beirut’s sixth studio album, Hadsel. In the time and records since Beirut’s 2006 debut, Gulag Orkestar, Condon has grown the project into a multi-member recording and touring outfit. Hadsel marks a return to Beirut’s singular origins, with Condon writing, playing, and recording every sound and instrument across the album’s 12 tracks. 

The songs reflect this, each track a sonic rumination built mainly out of organ chords and anchored by the beat of ancient analog drum machines. Condon’s now trademark slightly-askew choir harmonies and uniquely compelling trumpet and ukulele pairings are all here, propelling these ruminations toward something like a resolution. Whether or not Condon gets there is uncertain, but the journey is undoubtedly one worth hearing.

Beginning with the title track and lasting until the outro of “Baion”, Condon places the music in familiar Beirut territory. Here, though, the edges are smoother, tempered by that ever-guiding organ. While there’s always been a spirituality nascent in Beirut’s music, there’s something about the combination of synthesizers, brass horns, and tower of voices (all of which are his) that Condon mixes into choir mantras. Or even prayers. His lyrics are equally wide-open, river stones awaiting meaning to be given them by whoever picks them out.  

On “So Many Plans”, Condon transforms into a baroque folk singer, centering his song around a strummed baritone ukulele and a single, repeated melody with amended lyrics. “We had so many friends / This had to end, they had to end,” he sings prophetically, and definitely with some melancholy.  

With the instrumental “Melbu”, Condon pushes a pump organ away towards a sculptural soundscape. With “Stockmarknes”, he brings it back, centering around a swirling percussive sound that most resembles ice melting. In “Island Life”, the ukulele is predictably the star. While other Beirut albums may have let horn sections explore in songs like this, here, they are subdued. Condon warns of driving too fast through an unnamed town best seen under the cover of snow. “So don’t drive through town so slow / That is something you don’t / Want to see without snow / I can find somewhere to go.”

The final five tracks of Hadsel spin like a gyroscope, built and somewhat confined by synthesizers of all types. At times, it feels like they lack the idiosyncratic yet grooveable horn arrangements that have become an integral part of Beirut’s presence. There is, however, a compelling, atmospheric detachment to “Spillhaugen”, as well as a particular 2010s folk music meadow music video feel to “Süddeutsches Ton-Bild-Studio”.

In “The Tern”, Condon pairs an electronic Moog Voyager with a church organ, again exploring that secular/religious musical dichotomy. He does it in the lyrics, too, repeating nearly to the point of breaking that “You’re not too late to find who you are / You’re not too late to find.” On Hadsel‘s closer “Regulatory”, Condon sings with rich ambiguity at first, eventually resolving to the line “The old lies are born again.” Here, the horns arrive with the dime store regality that makes Beirut’s music both universal and charming. 

While Hadsel is missing some of the rugged wonders of early, full band-era Beirut tracks like “La Llorona” from the March of the Zapotec/Holland EP, there’s enough mystique to keep even new Beirut listeners intrigued. Ultimately, Hadsel feels like a kind of homecoming record. That is, if Condon’s homecoming was to a distant Norwegian island just a few months before everything finally went underwater. The illusion, of course, is that it’s come back up at all or that it ever will again. 

Condon seems to have emerged, though, and with Hadsel, he’s turned inward once again to bring his singular sound out into a cold, foul world. As when he first did it nearly two decades ago, it is an affirming, warm kind of music to serve as a soundtrack for the next valley surely coming for us all.

RATING 7 / 10