If there was one good thing to come out of the uproar that followed the release last November of Amir Benayoun’s infuriating song “Ahmed Loves Israel,” it was that it might cause people to relate to him as a singer once again. Not an intellectual, not an ideological authority, not a moral compass, not a poet, not a cultural hero, neither a prophet of truth nor a false messiah. A singer. A musician. No more, no less. A person gifted with an extraordinary voice who has developed a unique and fascinating style of writing poetry and setting it to music.
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Benayoun’s tens of thousands of devoted fans see him as much more than a musician. To them, his songs are the embodiment of truth. His detractors, in contrast, are horrified by the claim that he is an artist of a great truth, and along the way they also dismiss his music and voice.
Not only did “Ahmed Loves Israel” fail to budge either camp from their extreme positions, it may have actually reinforced them.
But there are many people who fall somewhere between these two poles when it comes to Benayoun. I’m not talking about those who view him as a great artist but a small human being, or those who stopped seeing him as a great artist when the rightist inside emerged. I’m talking about the people, myself included, who see the beauty in his songs, together with their flaws and the inherent malice of “Ahmed Loves Israel.”
Seeing Benayoun not as a cultural hero who went wrong but rather as a singer – first of all a singer (who, unfortunately, likes to express his political opinions) – puts his contradictions into perspective and allows them to exist without destroying the possibility of responding in a fair and unbiased manner to his work.
“Ahmed Loves Israel” was a singer’s equivalent to a vitriolic Facebook post. Three months have passed. Benayoun has a new album, “Sofa” (“Storm”). It would have been nice if it were possible to release all of the anger provoked by the singer onto the album, but it can’t be done. It’s a good album.
When a performer has been around for 15 years, the most important thing is to add some spice to the predictable elements of their work. Otherwise, there’s no point; we can just listen to their first albums. They’re always the best ones, anyway. Unless, that is, there are some new flowers to be found within the familiar field.
Benayoun is up to the task. The new album’s opening song is a dry plant, but from the second track until more than halfway through, there is a succession of songs that, while they don’t stray from the Benayoun prototype, nevertheless illuminate less familiar parts of it. For example, the wonderful collaboration with his wife, Miriam Benayoun. That in itself is not entirely new. His last album of original songs, the excellent “Etz al Mayim,” had four songs by Miriam Benayoun, and they were among the choicest on the 2012 release.
She wrote two of the songs on the new album, and even though this in itself is not a total innovation, the musical realization of these songs is refreshing. Her writing slightly changes the music he writes and, more profoundly, the way he sings. In “Kasheyavo Hasheket,” he talk-sings the verse, and there is a broken and fascinating dimension to his approach. On her second song, “Bekhal Horef,” his singing is more conventional, and the main pleasure it affords is in listening to him smoothly sing words taken from a higher and more lyrical register than his own.
Another refreshing surprise awaits listeners in the lovely love song “Eem Lo Hayiti Ba Akhshav.” The verse turns around a relatively low register, and when Benayoun goes higher with the titular words, the ear expects to hear the entire refrain follow it into the heavens, as Benayoun often does. But no. He immediately brings the song back to earth, twisting and turning it magnificently at a low register. It isn’t only a pleasant surprise, but also a more precise musical illustration of the song, which is an intimate declaration of love.
After “Hasofa,” the sixth of the album’s 11 songs, the whole thing begins to lost momentum. The beat and melody of the songs suddenly stop, while the lyrics go overboard in their indecisiveness and idleness. Benayoun knows nothing, and has nothing to offer, and he is afraid and flawed and hesitant. Okay, we’ve heard it all before.
So where do all those doubts and question marks disappear to when Benayoun shoots from the hip in response to current events? Could we ask him to hesitate a bit more in that department, too? No, I didn’t think so.