Zach Condon has been keeping us at arm’s length for some time now. He’s made no secret of being peculiarly methodical about cordoning off his influences album by album, filtering his compositions through whatever ethno-political tradition he’s been enamored with most recently; better yet, he’s found enormous cultural traction in it. Whether you admire his engaged musical tourism or find it suspicious – and for my money, the argument that he’s cheating anybody by doing what he does is an idiotic one – you’d be hard pressed to deny that he’s got a great hook, something worth talking about either way. But it gets craftier: Discussing his methodology and his intentions – his travels, such as they are – keeps us from asking more intimate, potentially disenchanting questions about what he brings us back as souvenirs. “What country will he do next?” is an easier question to ask, for him and for us, than “Is this good?” or “So when are he and Rufus Wainwright going to get it over with and converge into the same being?”
The Rip Tide, at least according to what preliminary buzz has come along thus far, has no particular hook. It’s got songs that sound otherworldly, or maybe just old-worldly, but it’s not tethered to any specific place or time. “East Harlem” is in New York, “Santa Fe” in New Mexico, “Payne’s Bay” in Barbados; “Goshen” is in Egypt, although more than half the states in the union have a township called Goshen. (The non-geographic songs are arguably more telling: “Vagabond”; “Port of Call.”) Condon’s narrator is as cagey as ever about anything that could be pegged as autobiographical. So does this mean we should succumb to the temptation to classify this as the closest we’ve yet been to his own inner landscape, to glimpsing the self he keeps under the serape or lederhosen or salwar kameez?
We’re welcome to, says The Rip Tide, but it’ll be a disappointing glimpse. Not because it reveals Condon to be any less dignified or preternaturally wise than on past albums, or melodically irresistible in any lower proportion, but because it’s not the least bit instructive. It’s the same songwriter we’ve seen in snapshots from various foreign lands, this time in front of buildings that may as well be down the road: same Seine-side accordion we heard on The Flying Club Cup, same mournfully stately horns he picked up in the Balkans for Gulag Orkestar. That this album sounds like the best of all those sensibilities, with the least scene-setting filler yet, is admirable because it suggests that Condon might eventually shrug off the costumes and the ceremony and play to what he knows, not to what he’s just learned – we’re nearly there as it is. But let’s be careful what we wish for: The Rip Tide also says that that uncloaking is going to take a long time, maybe as long as there’s a Beirut, and that maybe the artifice is inseparable from the good stuff.