Lion in Winter

Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev

The intention had been to suggest to singer Arik Einstein that he be interviewed on the occasion of his 70th birthday, but within seconds he took the phone conversation in a different direction. "You're the one who wrote those terrible things about the last album and the book with Eli Mohar, right?" he said accusingly.

At first, it seemed he was confused, but Einstein knows very well what he is talking about. Even though over a year has passed since publication of the album review (and more than two years since the piece about the book, which is based on the late journalist/songwriter Mohar's conversations with Einstein), he began to recite the article word for word. There was only one thing more astonishing than Einstein's phenomenal memory: his anger. After a lengthy rebuke, delivered quietly and in a nearly paternal tone, he even added, "How can you sleep at night?"

Which leads to the question - from one of his songs: Why should he take it to heart? How does he remember every bad word? He is Arik Einstein; he should be above all that. But it is surprising and fascinating to discover that he is not.

One thing that made him seethe was the mention of his image as a withdrawn person who observes things from afar, wrapped in a smokescreen. This image was referred to in passing - and it was also written that it does not reflect reality - but the very fact it was mentioned hurt Einstein, who sees himself as an engaged and responsive artist.

It seems that his anger does not only stem from a specific review, but also perhaps from a more general sense of frustration over the fact that his recent albums have not made the waves he thought they would. Radio stations - and especially Army Radio, of which he despaired long ago - will continue to grind out his old hits until the end of time. But even 88 FM, which he helped to defend when the threat of closure hung over it, has hardly played his new material.

The frustration is understandable: The public considers the past 15 years of Einstein's career to have been lukewarm, artistically speaking. Agreement on this seems to be quite widespread and perhaps has, a priori, shaped people's attitudes toward his new albums. We approach them already suspecting they will not thrill us as much as an Arik Einstein album is supposed to, and our suspicions are confirmed in many instances.

Einstein senses this and seems to feel that people are no longer listening to him. "Take your time, listen to the album at leisure. We'll see, maybe you'll change your mind," he says at the end of the short conversation.

That, of course, was an offer impossible to refuse. "All the Good in the World," the newest album by Einstein and Guy Bocati, was put on immediately and set to the ninth track, "Dancing the Tango Alone."

I remembered that this was a good song, but I was wrong: It is a wonderful song. In it Einstein sounds so fragile, so vulnerable: "I've written you so many songs and this will be the last," he tells his beloved at the start of the number, and then goes on to demand, in a cracked voice: "So take away some of my pain." And when this wipes him out, he adds, almost in a whisper: "It is killing me like this, bit by bit." What drama, what delicacy, what a perfect presentation by Einstein, what a beautiful melody by Bocati and how wise the decision was to use a contrabass rather than a regular bass.

No more patience

Anyone who says that Einstein no longer feels it, anyone who thinks that he is no longer capable of greatness, has not heard "Dancing the Tango Alone," or has not listened to it properly. The question is whether it's possible - based on a claim that derives from the discovery of the beauty of one song - to make a generalization about all of Einstein's recent work. Is there more there than we had thought? Listening to his latest album in its entirety, as well as to the four previous ones he has put out since 1999, leads to a two-pronged conclusion: First of all, this has indeed been a less impressive chapter than the earlier chapters in Einstein's career. Nevertheless, if we dismiss it in any way, we will miss out on the complexity, the beauty and the depth that are embodied in it, along with quite a few manifestations of mediocrity and banality.

It becomes clear that we no longer have the patience to listen attentively to Arik Einstein. Why? Why do we demand of the albums he recorded over the past 15 years, with admirable persistence and diligence, that they be something they probably can't be? It is impossible to avoid the thought that Einstein's abstention from public performances plays a crucial role here. The tribal elders of the music world, in Israel as elsewhere, maintain their status and spark mainly via concerts. Einstein chose to withdraw from this game nearly 30 years ago. If his new album isn't terrific, there is nothing to compensate for that.

Perhaps - to segue into not unreasonable psychological hypotheses - this feeling is also accompanied by suppressed anger. Of course, we respect his choice not to appear, but beneath the surface, we blame Einstein for preventing us from enjoying him singing the old hits. So we take out our anger on the new songs and the singer who sings them.

There is, however, an inevitable qualitative gap between Einstein's classics and most of his new crop, as seen in "Muscat," his joint 1999 album with Shalom Hanoch. Perhaps they tried hard not to make a truly great album, and that is reflected in its focus on aging - a poignant and beautiful subject that reaches a peak in a song in which Hanoch says to 60-year-old Einstein: "Not long ago you were a child, and the city was one too / You'd come and excel in the high school yard / Since then the city's grown and all it doesn't have is space / And perhaps its son is beginning to age."

The album "Wet Sun," in which Einstein's main partner was Micha Sheetrit, came out in 2002. This is a mediocre album, with some forgettable songs. But here, too, when Einstein looks back at the days of his youth, fascinating things happen. The memories are vague, elusive, not entirely realistic: They bring him to a state of hovering above things, while also being wonderfully concrete. The musical treatment of the title song is breathtaking in its beauty, with Raviv Gazit's wonderful keyboard wrapping around Einstein's voice.

"Two Guitars Bass Drums," in 2004, was (if we ignore a few irrelevant tracks, like "Salt Separation") an attempt to make a rock album. A legitimate and interesting attempt: