A Voice From the Other Side

Thirteen years after musician Inbal Perlmuter's death, an album of her final works is being re-released, a true masterpiece about death.

She didn't even make it to 27. Inbal Perlmuter was killed a few months before reaching this key age in rock 'n' roll's mythology of death. Her fans presumably still mourn her loss, even though it has been more than 13 years since that car crash. And they may not be the only ones. Everyone who has listened to "Last Recordings," the wonderful album that came out after Perlmuter's death, carries some memory of her: joy for the great art she left behind, and sorrow over her early death.

"Haklatot ahronot" ("Last Recordings" ), which contains preliminary recordings of songs, was first released about a year after the singer's death. It had been preceded by some debate: Some of Perlmuter's friends claimed she would not have wanted the songs to be heard in their raw form. Fortunately their opinion was rejected.

Inbal Perlmuter

If an album of preliminary recordings can be a masterpiece, then this may well be one. It is hard to think of a more beautiful and moving monument than this album, which has deepened Perlmuter's body of work and revealed things about her that were only hinted at on the albums of her band, Hamechashefot (The Witches ).

If Perlmuter were still alive, she would have turned 40 last month; the new version of "Last Recordings" was released to coincide roughly with that date. While it is regrettable that it does not include any songs that were not on the first version, the reissued album is still of great value. The only thing different is that in place of the original cover - a terrific, abstract drawing in shades of white and red - there is a photograph of Perlmuter. She is standing on stage, with a leather jacket and a sad expression. Her jacket and guitar are as rock 'n' roll as they come, but her gaze and body language freeze the energy at once: They project the disaffection, loneliness and profound melancholy which are the base of this album.

In fact, "Last Recordings" is about death: because of the terrible circumstances under which the album came out, but mainly because of the songs themselves. This is a shocking album. "Hear a commotion from afar / A blue car approaches / Just one more step and then the plungeeeeeeeee" ("Me'akevet"; there are no English lyrics of, or titles for, the songs ). "For to die in that style is something I still don't get / So violent that it's flagrant and it's frightening / And it is an image that will remain forever / You know that everything turned red / When he cut his own throat" ("Sigaryot Lite" ). In "Halom," Perlmuter ends the chorus with the words "and I wanted to die," and even an optimistic-sounding song is titled "Zehirut me'hamirvach" (literally, mind the gap ).

No-man's land

But beyond these explicit references to death, which demonstrate Perlmuter's rare honesty and courage, the more shocking songs are the ones that talk about death in a refined and indirect manner. They create a no-man's land between life and death: no longer here, but not yet there. It happens right at the beginning of the album.

On the song "Hatul Besak," she sings: "To wind a spring, to turn around / Penknife in a pocket keeps enemies away / Train growing distant - smoke and dot / To underline with a ruler the doubt into fact / And also to dream to embroider to unstitch to dream to embroider to unstitch to dream to embroider to unstitch."

In just a few sentences - and without saying "I" (in general, there is not a lot of "I" in this album, even though it is frighteningly personal ) - Perlmuter distills a rich psychic picture, precise and very depressing: the automatic and alienated existence ("to wind a spring" ); the knife always on hand (which keeps enemies away, but maybe friends too, and is also and primarily directed at oneself ); the sense of erasure and disappearance (the train moving away ); the absolute absence of stability (there are no facts, only doubts ); and the feeling - more than a feeling, the knowledge - that everything embroidered is unraveled in the end.

"Halom" is another example of a song about the seam line between life and death. In it Perlmuter sings: "I forgot myself inside a really scary dream / I forgot myself inside a really scary dream / It was an ordinary morning / No sign of a cloud / And a maze snaked around me / I woke up (or not ) under the shadow of a huge wall / And on the way to the gate each grain stood like a mountain blocking visibility / And I wanted to die / I woke up (or not ) in the shadow of a huge wall / And the gate remains far off / And I wanted to laugh."

It is not for me to determine whether this text is good art in itself (I think it is ), but the way in which Perlmuter set it to music and sang it is without a doubt art at its best. After the awakening (or not ) in the shadow of a huge wall, she spits out quickly and breathlessly the words "And on the way to the gate each grain stood like a mountain blocking visibility." This is a final, failed effort to reach the gate. Then "And I wanted to die." When Perlmuter repeats the scene of awakening (or not ), she sings in a tone of complete resignation, "And the gate remains far off. Faaaaaaaar off." The laughter at the end is not a life-affirming laughter. It is a dark and toxic laughter, the laughter after death.

Raw rock

The music on "Last Recordings" is indeed very raw, as those who objected to the album's release claimed at the time. But when you are dealing with rock 'n' roll, rawness is a disadvantage only for a weak personality and paltry music. The personality in this case is especially fierce, and Perlmuter's melodies are far from paltry.

True, they are not particularly complex. Perlmuter came from a tradition of directness and simplicity. But her composition has a very important quality: It is dynamic. She knew how to build tension between monotony and movement, and especially how to strike the right basic chord in the right fraction of a second. This was at the base of 1990s rock - from Kurt Cobain to Mofa Haarnavot Shel Dr. Kasper - and it was generally accompanied by distortion and thumping drums.

"Last Recordings" has brief spurts of drums and distortion, but as a rule this is a small and quiet album, an album of one woman who recorded herself at home. This too is an advantage: not only because of the intimacy the situation creates, but also because distortion and loud percussion were never Perlmuter's natural milieu.

Between us, The Witches never did know how to rock out. They didn't have the volume and the drive. So Perlmuter's songs benefit from a more chamber-like atmosphere. A recording of reasonable quality would have made them even better of course, but it is what it is - and it's plenty.

A Maariv reporter once asked Perlmuter to list her cultural itinerary. She gave an endless list of musicians, painters, authors, poets, directors and venues where she soaked up all of this abundance - from the Penguin nightclub through the Paris Cinema and the Goethe Institute, to the citrus orchard behind De Shalit High School in Rehovot. It seems that this rich, deep cultural background wound up on "Last Recordings," and it, along with the main resource, which is of course Perlmuter's great talent and complicated psyche, created this little treasure.

One of the bands Perlmuter mentions in her list of cultural "stops" was Yossi Elephant's Lehaka Retorit (Rhetorical Band ). Its cover version of "Im yesh lecha shemesh" ("If You Have Sun" ), which ends "Last Recordings," is reminiscent in a way (mainly in its sleepy-fragmented singing ) of Elephant's cover version of "Sea of Love."

And this raises the inevitable complaint: Yes, it's rock 'n' roll and all that, but why on earth are the best the first to go?