Shaking off past, Matisyahu goes pop
Matisyahu has undergone a media-covered transformation in recent months, going from ultra-Orthodox singer with a Rastafarian-Jewish soul to someone who looks like a model for The Gap.
Matisyahu has undergone a media-covered transformation in recent months, going from ultra-Orthodox singer with a Rastafarian-Jewish soul to someone who looks like a model for The Gap. Given the fact that the idea of Matisyahu − an ultra-Orthodox Jewish reggae star − seemed from the outset like a brainwave for a comedy sketch, it seems this transformational moment is not about musical inspiration, but is more like a dramatic game-changer on a reality show.
After huge mainstream pop hits such as “King Without a Crown,” and joint electronic ventures with The Crystal Method and Impacted Mushroom, and having become the icon of cool religiosity, Matisyahu decided to shake off the past and his commercial image.
This was not Matisyahu’s first spiritual or aesthetic upheaval. Born Matthew Paul Miller, he was − before his decade in ultra-Orthodox garb − an ardent fan of the Grateful Dead, which has its own religious and psychedelic overtones. “Spark Seeker” is Matisyahu’s fourth studio album. In it he continues his Jewish spiritual journey, but this time in a freer and more fluid way.
Musically, the album features all the elements that made some of his songs into such big hits, especially huge at Israeli weddings and American Jewish summer camps.
“Spark Seeker” is full of pieces that grow on one easily and quickly, but they lack the musical depth of the profoundly unsettling path Matisyahu has traveled. Israeli folk songs, verses from Psalms, Arabic lyrics, Hasidic tunes, reggae and Yiddish − all are jumbled together as seasoning for a synthesized, pop performance and an especially smooth production. There are no surprises here. Anyone who has gladly followed Matisyahu to this point will probably remain satisfied.
In this album, Matisyahu recalls the successful reggae and dancehall singers of the past, such as Sean Paul and Shuggie, when he sings in Jamaican patois over synthesized beats. In “Baal Shem Tov,” a track with a 1980s electronic sound, Matisyahu sings a standard pop-reggae melody. The tune with Jewish flavoring is postponed to the end of the cut. This is one of the moments in the album in which one cannot but wish that Matisyahu would go more deeply into the roots of both Jamaican music and Hasidic tunes.
Ironically, it is on a track like “Breathe Easy,” where there is neither any preoccupation with Judaism nor any reggae elements, that Matisyahu manages to be great. Like other songs in the album, this is a track with a generic sound, but it puts him in a place where he sounds natural and at home in the contemporary urban pop genre.
From the outset, one should approach Matisyahu not as someone who’s operating in reggae’s rich musical tradition, but rather as someone working in the realm of commercial pop who draws inspiration from reggae. Just as his reggae sounds thin and saccharine, his pop manages to deliver added value thanks to its range and exotic elements. This could indeed be the answer to the question of where he’s heading, a question that was asked immediately after Matisyahu shaved off his beard and moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.