Ask an Israeli to name a song from the past decade by Shlomo Artzi, one of the country’s most successful singers, and what would he say? You could bet on “TeTa’aru Lakhem” (“Imagine Yourselves”) from the 2007 album “Shfuium” (“Sane”). It has reverberated the most among Artzi’s recent works and is perhaps the only one to join his repertoire of hits. It is no coincidence that Artzi’s 3-CD hit collection from three years ago is called “TeTa’aru Lakhem.”
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The lyrics, full of hope, certainly helped turn “TeTa’aru Lakhem” into a mini-national hymn, but apparently it is its beautiful, clear and light melody that has really made it so beloved.
Artzi’s compositional muscles, which were in peak fitness in the 1970s and '80s, have been much less flexible over the past two decades. He no longer seems to experience melodic inspiration. Yet suddenly he produced a golden tune. Its optimistic lyrics are basically a fantasy; its beautiful melody is the musical parallel of an idea whose time has come. The song has the ability to change the power relations between dream and reality, and the beauty of the melody imbues the fantasy of “TeTa’aru Lakhem” with genuine feeling.
So I was curious to see if another “TeTa’aru Lakhem” cropped up in his 2012 album “Osher Express” (“Happiness Express”) or in his brand-new album, “Katzefet” (“Cream”). Did his melodic inspiration pay another visit? In both cases the answer tends to be negative. There are pleasing melodic elements here and there, and a kind of "bonus" song from days gone by at the end, which is wonderfully composed from first note to last. But in general "Katzefet" reflects Artzi's characteristic, mediocre compositional condition of the past 20 years.
The general impression is that the noted singer-songwriter didn’t invest too much creative energy in composition here. Artzi’s voice has been preserved better than most of his local musical cohort, but his singing on most of the album is almost incidental. It’s not that he doesn’t "live" his songs; he does that to the max. He really cares about them. But he cares less about the musical dimension of the act of singing.
There is also a big gap between the amount of investment and caring that Artzi demonstrates, and the final product, which sounds simultaneously busy and superficial. Too many instruments are playing with too little expressive power and dynamics.
“Katzefet” strengthens the feeling that at this stage of his career, music is basically a means for Artzi to fulfill his true goal of revealing the emotional picture of his life. It is a stormy, free and very energetic picture. It is filled with exuberance and it is uncensored. There is always drama. There are screams and whispers (in the lyrics, not Artzi’s voice). The word “madness” is repeated, as are “loneliness” and “love,” “god” and “king.”
This is Artzi’s poetry, and there are two ways to anchor it in music successfully. One is to run with the lyrics, with their free-spirited, unruly drive. The other is to impose some discipline and provide the works with a taste of pure aesthetic creation. These options are not realized in “Katzefet.” The musical energy is much lower than the emotional energy. The aesthetics pale compared to the passion, and the lack of those two important qualities undermine the validity of the emotional picture that is so important for Artzi to convey.
Roots and journeys
The gap between the Artzi of the unrestrained lyrics and the Artzi of the mediocre music is nothing new. “Katzefet” is more successful than “Osher Express” because its narrative is interesting. It’s easy to miss the first time you listen, but it eventually becomes clear, at least to a point. The picture of Artzi the boy (alongside adult Artzi) on the album cover hints that it will return to the singer’s roots and offer a glance at his life's journey. That happens, but not only in the expected manner of songs that return to one’s childhood and youth.
The entire album wanders between different periods of life. It seems every song belongs to another period, without Artzi providing a clear time-line. The hints are equivocal. Deciphering is required, but it won’t tie up all the loose ends. And that’s fine. The album opens with songs that take place now (with jaunts into the past), and then goes back in time.
The fourth track, “Beiteinu” (“Our Home”), is about the period when Artzi was trying to find his voice. He sings of almost being a “third-rate Bob Dylan.” His parents suddenly grow old, in the next song, “Stav” (“Autumn”). The next track opens with the line “Everything ended that autumn.” Artzi is building some sort of continuum and puts us in a story without giving us a precise map. Some songs did gain added value when I understood Artzi’s narrative.
About two-thirds of the way through, the chronology gets mixed up. The album ends with the only song whose words Artzi did not compose, “Giva Ahat” (“One Hill”) by Natan Yonatan; Artzi set it to music and it was performed by the Hagevatron singers several years ago. In this song, Death, also mentioned in the opening track of "Katzefet," is knocking on the door. The wonderful melody arouses the impression that it was written by Artzi many years ago.
After you listen to it carefully, you can't help but imagine how beautiful the whole album would be if the other songs had been composed with such specialness.