There’s a moment when a song passes from “good” to “soulful.” Whatever meticulous vulnerability or off-the-cuff vibrato went into it, this moment has nothing to do with the song itself and everything to do with the time at which it enters our lives. For instance, if the song comes at a point of change, a big move, break-up, or death, we grip the melody like a ship’s railing. Once we take a hold of a song like this, we never let it go. Years later, we’ll hear it and think there it is again, the sound that steadied my chaos. Such songs comfort us, but not through any easy amnesia or opiate-induced detachment. They comfort us in the only way that offers any long-term healing: by validating our experience.
Like the smell of a particular coffee blend or a city skyline, the music becomes a narrative signifier, part of the story we tell ourselves to keep going, to make more story. The people we love, the people we leave, the people who leave us, the colors we wear that particular season, the length of our hair, our drugs, our sobriety, the sun slitting our bedroom: all are coded into the trigger of the song.
I have a handful of such songs, though I don’t mention them in casual conversation. They’re too powerful. Speaking of them, I become affected, ripped out to sea, and I don’t always return.
The Rip Tide is the title track of Beirut’s 2011, eight-track album. Frontman Zach Condan wrote the songs in seclusion in upstate New York where, he told NPR, he awoke every morning “to chop wood and swing golf balls at tress.” As you would expect from anyone who routinely thumbs ukuleles and pipe organs, Condan speaks with contagious enthusiasm, with eyes that drift up and to the left as he gushes about his influences: the Belgian belter Jaques Brel, Balkan folk, Motown, and his complicated love affair with the French horn.
To his endless, elfish glee, Condan’s sound escapes definition. One could call The Rip Tide “world music,” but this is insufficient; more truthful to say who the music is for rather than what it is. For those who oscillate between longing and belonging, those who left home yet, deep down, still yearn for it: this is for whom The Rip Tide tolls.
Home, of course, isn’t a particular place but a feeling, the curse of which is that we never recognize it while we have it. Home only exists retroactively. If we let ourselves feel home, we can’t yearn for it, and how would we listen to music then?
The trumpets in The Rip Tide remind me of New Orleans, one home I have known. For outsiders who remember Katrina as a year-long media event, a litany of catastrophic failures, the city is defined by tragedy: the American Biblical Flood. For other tourists, it is a Babylon where they let out versions of themselves that don’t fly in their conservative, Midwest towns. Here they can have a careless love affair, gamble, speak loosely with the bartender until they discover, far too late, the original meaning of the world “hangover”: to survive alone, in misery.
Blowing away these reductive assumptions, brass is the triumph of will. The trumpets, tubas, and trombones shine all the brighter in hurricane season, when clouds block out the sun and saint candles flicker in kitchens. In a jazz funeral, the brass comes out in gold ribbons, tailcoats, and crisp stepping shoes. While mourning, it’s good to glimmer. To hold on to one blaring, sustained note, let it carry you forward.
The first brass instrument was a conch shell. Early brass players controlled pitch by carving holes in the shell, a mouthpiece at the narrow base of the curled funnel. In one way or another, brass has always belonged to those who live with the water, who understand what it gives, what it takes away, too.
I have loved and lost a lot in New Orleans. Here, I got my chops as a writer and photographer; by “chops,” I mean the essential awareness that I have nothing to lose. Most of us don’t pursue what fulfills us because we fear it will rob us of an imaginary future, one where we commit to another way of life, another person, another group of friends. Another home. We fear losing what doesn’t exist, so end up losing what does. Waiting for a bus that was always late, under an awning alive with fuzzy caterpillars, I gave up on any idea of perfection. Whatever I had, wherever I was going, it was enough.
Between the push and pull of The Rip Tide, I ache but don’t despair: better to be a ship with wind-tattered sails than a ship that never leaves the harbor. There is beauty and power in letting yourself get carried out to sea, that wide, bright expanse where “potential” becomes “life.” The water, with all its uncertainty, whale shadow, and ever-fresh horizon, tugs you into a constant state of arriving. Of coming home.