mon 04/12/2023

CD: Matisyahu - Akeda | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Matisyahu - Akeda

CD: Matisyahu - Akeda

Self-styled 'Hasidic reggae superstar' goes indie

In search of a lost heart?

Once upon a time, Matthew “Matisyahu” Miller was the Hasidic reggae singer. There was only one, and the beard he sported for the first three albums made him pretty easy to spot. He still calls himself the “Hasidic reggae superstar” (on “Watch the Walls Melt Down”), but now, for this fifth studio album, he’s sleek, smooth and groomed, like any successful performer from LA, with a cosmopolitan stylistic palette to match.  

The generic diversification is, it seems, deliberate. While reggae, rap and hip hop have been converging for some time, and the Jewish sounds have always been there, he drops in yowling rock guitar (“Reservoir”) and beat-boxing, while the juicy, distorted brass chords on “Black Heart” could have come straight from a Cuban band. “Obstacles” - for me, the pick - matches a wistful, lilting guitar melody to a voice that’s more Stipe than Snoop. And elsewhere there’s a touch of jazz, in the rhythm, thanks to the polyrhythmic virtuosity of drummer Mark Guiliana. It’s all done with a grinning, kid-in-a-sweet-shop lack of inhibition and, for the most part, it’s bags of fun. He certainly knows how to craft a climax.

In fact, the new styles outshine the established Jewish reggae. Reverence rarely makes good art. Though the prayer chants add a lovely choral texture, some of the religious songs just feel long-winded. “Vow of Silence (Shalom)” would be better taken literally: it goes on, without really going anywhere. And though he’s been doing it a long time, that doesn’t mean it’s clever for a white singer from White Plains, NY, to put on a Jamaican accent. Whereas “Broken Car” - a powerful song, like “Obstacles” - is touching, closely observed, and its densely figurative lyrics and piercing symbolism unfold with a narrative control that makes you hang on to every word. Welcome to your bright indie future, Matisyahu.

Though he’s been doing it a long time, that doesn’t mean it’s clever for a white singer from White Plains, NY, to put on a Jamaican accent


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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"Reverence rarely makes good art." What are you, 20? Have you never heard of Bach? Or Bresson? Or Rembrandt? Or Rublev? Or Rumi? There is much reverence that has been recognized as supremely good art, whether one's tastes have been challenged and refined enough to recognize it or not. Maybe you meant that reverence rarely makes good rock. Anyway, this "generic diversification" for Matisyahu started with "Spark Seeker," not with this album.

The problem with reverence and its position in art is the idea of deep, and usually unquestioning respect that it implies. Original, interesting art almost always questions, challenges and undermines. You refer to routine examples of religious art, though I suggest you read up on the background of these pieces. In many cases, artists famous today were criticised by contemporaries because by striving for innovation, they upset the status quo of the reverent.  

Michaelangelo offended church authorities by challenging both social hierarchy and decorum with his naked people in The Last Judgement. The poet John Milton tried to justify God to man in his poem Paradise Lost, but ended up, in the view of many critics, presenting Satan as his most sympathetic character. Even Bach, though a Christian, was thought by many contemporaries to write music too complex for worship - he was trying to create something new and exciting, which is almost always at odds with reverent piety - and his revival in C19 was driven more by German nationalism than piety. I could go on for pages...

A lot of enduring art that resonates with people across generations and centuries is reverent. Reverent doesn't mean unquestioning; to think so is to misunderstand reverence. Of course, the fact that a work of art is enduring is not itself enough to make it "great" art, but the fact that a work of art does endure suggests it has much to recommend it, suggests that it is able to reach into the humanity of its many beholders in their various conditions, suggests that it is able to speak beyond its own contingencies. Much of the art that is able to do this is going to be reverent. Much of the art that fails to do this will be forgotten almost as quickly as all of the gibbering of the critics who hailed it as provocative or undermining or revolutionary (How we worship the revolution! Is that not a kind of reverence?). So much of such art only speaks to its own time and its own circumstances and will mean nothing to most outsiders. Something of a epidemic among the critics of late is the inability to appreciate a well-wrought expression of reverence, simply because of a critics' own disdain for such unfashionable subject matter. I won't say this is always out of order, and I am not accusing anybody reading this of being such a critic, but perhaps a critic with such a bent could reflect on some of the thoughts of the critic who wrote the following: The subject under review, Geoffrey Hill, shocks, surprises, questions, and all the rest … and doesn't flee reverence.

Indeed, sir. You are right about the greatest art being challenging and by pointing out, for instance, Bach trying to create something new and exciting. I would question somewhat how "at odds" it was with reverent piety, but the fact that you mention this suggests that we may differ somewhat in our idea of what "reverence" is. I would suggest that there is nothing necessarily irreverent about challenging things such as social heirarchy and decorum, of shaking things up so to speak. In fact, depending on the circumstances, a sense reverence may actually demand that one do such things. As for Michelangelo, certainly he offended church authorities, but even so, there he was, painting in the heart of their world, apparently with the approval of some of those authorities who must have seen the value of what he was doing, offended or not. All of that said, I find problems with the idea that reverence rarely makes good art or even with the idea that good art must be "challenging" in a political sense. Certainly, good art must challenge our ways of seeing, of hearing, of seeing, of thinking, but that doesn't mean it must necessarily lack devotion. In fact, it may be devotion itself, whether to the established orthodoxy or to that which challenges the established orthodoxy, that drives how compelling the art is. There seems to be too much of a sense among many artists of all kinds that seems to make them feel their duty above all is to subvert. I think certainly they may subvert, but when this becomes the very impetus of the art, the artist becomes a propagandist. It is in this vein, perhaps, that I object to a blanket statement about reverence tending toward bad art. However, I do apologize for my earlier statement questioning your maturity and the attitude I displayed in doing so. As far as Matisyahu himself, he seems to be challenging some in his own tradition as he develops as an artist.

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