At seventeen years old, New Mexico native Zach Condon dropped out of community college and flew to Eastern/Central Europe with his brother, where he traveled with gypsy bands and studied indigenous folk cultures in the Baltics and former USSR.1 Upon returning, the young musician started a one-man project2 called “Beirut,” through which he created music in memory of his travels and in recognition of the broad European cultural milieu that is at the heart of so much conflict yet even more spirit.
It is ironic, then, that Gulag Orkestar sounds more like a hopeless romantic teenager’s idea of Europe filtered through French New Wave Cinema and old photographs than it does one who actually lived there. That much is obvious in the Beirut name – a city that Condon had not visited and romanticized as a “chic urban city surrounded by an ancient Muslim world.”3 Condon makes a maudlin interpretation of incredibly nuanced cultures, where things are beautiful and spectacular with just a hint of sadness; it’s sentimental to a foolish extreme. Condon fetishizes gypsy culture as a carefree lifestyle for world-weary travelers, never once touching upon the systemic racism and pain those groups faced and continue to face either in credit or in the music itself.
Gulag Orkestar is a textbook example of cultural appropriation, albeit unintentional.4 Condon has created an album that seeks to elicit images of European wanderlust with titles such as “Prenzlauerberg,” “Brandenburg,” “Mount Wroclai (Idle Days),” and “Bratislava,” but it’s all filtered through the eyes of someone who wants these places to seem romantic and exotic rather than exist as cities with their own feelings and motivations. It’s sad; the music itself is quite beautiful, but it is impossible to dissociate it from the nagging feeling that this is probably not an accurate painting of a Brandenburg soundscape, but simply an expressionistic interpretation through the mind of a teenager sans the maturity to see these places in their own light. The listener is hearing a self-styled peregrination, and a pilgrim Condon is not.
That’s not to say there is no heart or authenticity here. Condon is an accomplished musician who paints provocative, whimsical soundscapes with a thirst for life that is restrained only by his technical ability. “Postcards from Italy” is an indie pop anthem that is among one of the best tracks of the noughties, with a simple two-chord ukulele progression that gives way to an effusive brass break. At these tender moments, Condon shows his strength in songwriting through focusing less on the flash and fury and more on the unresolved turmoil at the hearts of all such wanderers who are not truly lost.5
Gulag Orkestar was a shaky beginning to Condon’s career. Its adventurous charm is lost in Condon’s idealization of Eastern and Central European culture. There is no way that a “gulag” can be beautiful – even in a Hollywood “there’s always hope/life is beautiful” kind of way, which is the framing into which Condon tries too hard to crop his impression of Europe. It is a pretty album, but with moments of inexcusable appropriation due to its creator’s immaturity.
1. The Gulag Orkestar – (4:38) – ★★★☆☆
2. Prenzlauerberg – (3:46) – ★★☆☆☆
3. Brandenburg – (3:38) – ★★★★☆
4. Postcards from Italy – (4:17) – ★★★★★
5. Mount Wroclai (Idle Days) – (3:15) – ★★★★★
6. Rhineland (Heartland) – (3:58) – ★★★☆☆
7. Scenic World – (2:08) – ★★★★☆
8. Bratislava – (3:17) – ★★☆☆☆
9. The Bunker – (3:13) – ★★★☆☆
10. The Canals of Our City – (2:20) – ★★★☆☆
11. After the Curtain – (2:54) – ★★★★☆
1“An Interview with Zach Condon & Jason of Beirut.” BrooklynVegan. June 29, 2006. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://www.brooklynvegan.com/an-interview-wi-3/.
2… which has since evolved into a full band
3Syme, Rachel. “Beirut: The Band.” NYMag.com. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://nymag.com/arts/popmusic/features/18856/.
4… and that is not said with the motive of mitigation.
5“Scenic World” is similar, even though its MIDI instrumentation lowers the affect. It’s also pretty hard to take a teenager seriously when he sings “I lie down like a tired dog / licking his wounds in the shade.”