The last thing the title song from singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan’s new album wants to do is make us laugh. It’s a painfully serious song – sung in English, like all the cuts on the album – with tragic overtones, which grow deeper in the light of the surprising association that Avidan’s voice evokes: Billie Holiday, no less. Avidan’s distorting of the phrases in the verses and the low timbre that takes over his voice conjure up the great jazz singer. It’s a bold gamble by Avidan: He’s venturing into musical and emotional territory that’s considerably beyond his reach. He does the smart thing in the chorus of the song titled “Gold Shadow” by navigating it into a less historical and less highly charged channel, along the way singing one of the loveliest and saddest choruses heard in Israeli music for some time.
The last thing a listener wants to do in the middle of a song that’s both lovely and mournful is to laugh, but that’s just what happens in “Gold Shadow.” There’s no other choice, given Avidan’s imagery. “Dead and true as lipstick” and “deep and true as whiskey” manage to scrape through. Okay, it’s not quite Raymond Chandler, but it passes muster. But then comes “Slow as the speed of skin,” which triggers involuntary giggling when the mind, contemplating the bizarre image, translates the words into Hebrew: mehirut ha’or. “Or” is a homonym, which can mean either “light” (“the speed of light”) when spelled one way, or “skin” (as here) when spelled another way. If the whole song is a balloon – though one with a fine chorus – this is the pin that punctures it.
The sound of the pin that pops the balloon is heard a few more times on the new album, and in songs that are not as good as “Gold Shadow.” Each particular puncture reaffirmed my reservations, and sometimes even repulsions, in regard to Avidan, and why I cannot truly share the happiness that his amazing worldwide success is generating.
The next pinprick is perpetrated in the fourth song on the album, “Little Parcels of an Endless Time.” The whole song is founded on an overly dramatic chorus, and toward the end all the instruments fall silent and Avidan sings a capella. I’m certain that the singer’s legions of fans will be enthralled by the super-tempestuous vocal acrobatics he releases here, but to my jaded ears the emotional-vocal storm he foments, particularly in his pronunciation of the word “trepidation,” sounds quite hollow. The fact that I’m not familiar with the word – like most Israelis who speak average English – only heightens the comic potential of the situation.
Another puncture of the balloon is the way Avidan articulates the word “Chardonnay” in the song “My Tunnels are Long and Dark These Days” (and what’s with these long titles, anyway?). Yet another is the childish “Bang, bang, bang etc.” in the song “Bang Bang,” which sounds like a plastic murder ballad fired with blanks. A last example is “The Labyrinth Song”: it’s been a long time since we’ve heard such a flagrant Leonard Cohen imitation.
I’ve gone into this much detail about the balloon-popping effects because, in the end, this is what I remember from Avidan’s new album. Obviously, if I liked his voice, and if I thought the songs were of superior quality, these pinpoint annoyances would be negligible. But Avidan’s voice, which is his chief asset, makes me feel uncomfortable: It forces me to feel, instead of suggesting that I do. And I find in Avidan’s songs, including those on the new album, a problematic imbalance between the musical content and the expressive wrapping. There’s far too much of the latter. The pointer of the voice, the drama, the pretension always lies at the far end of the scale, if not beyond, while the pointer of the music itself is usually somewhere in the middle.
Rarely do the two pointers overlap. That happens when the level of drama and pretension falls, while the song itself rides a musical wave. The delightful “Over My Head,” which opens the album, is a good example of this dynamic, as is “Let’s Just Call it Fate.” But for every successful song on the album, there are at least three songs in which the horse of the drama gallops forward, while the cart of the music is I wanted to write “slow as the speed of skin,” but the truth is that it just plods ahead at a middling pace.