Shalom Gad likes to take his time when he works on albums. Then he suddenly comes out with a bunch nearly at once, which are usually worth their weight in gold. So it was at the start of this decade, when Gad broke a long silence (since 2005) with a series of six albums – most of them quite wonderful – within less than three years; together they made up a most impressive body of work in modern Israeli music. The last album in this sequence, “Talmei Eliahu,” named for the southern moshav where the singer grew up, came out in late 2012. Since then we haven’t heard anything from Gad.
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Now, four years later, his new album, called “Hakol Hadash” (“Everything is New”), has just been released. There’s no telling if it also marks the start of a series of albums, but even if destined to stand alone, it’s clear why Gad took so long with it. “Hakol Hadash” paints an unusually wide canvas.
It’s not a matter of size, though this is a lengthy album with some songs that are quite densely packed with lyrics. What matters is the point of view and the material Gad deals with. Before you even start listening to the album, the titles of some of the songs – “The Seventh Aliya,” “The Mouse that Made Aliya from Russia Inside a Grand Piano,” “Outside the Interior Ministry,” “Being an Oleh” – hint that this album is going to look Israeli reality in the eye, apparently from the vantage point of a stranger and outsider. But as you listen, you find that it’s not just the current situation that’s on the table, but history as well. The entire story is laid out. Chronologically, it calls to mind the “Pillar of Fire” documentary series about the modern history of Israel. But this is an album, a collection of songs, not a 24-episode television series, and the difficult task into which Gad has hurled himself with awe-inspiring courage is to scale the massive wall of material that comprises the vast and ongoing Israeli story with the modest tools of a songwriter and band leader. The initial impression is that Gad has chosen to use something approximating the format of a musical production, something he did in the past to great effect on his marvelous album “Songs of the Land of Israel.”
The opening song, “War and Love,” is sung by Gad and Noga Shalev, embodying two young impassioned Zionists making aliya. “Look at the light that rises in the east,” sings Gad. “Look at the landscape, Hear how it sings to you the world’s oldest song.” The music is heroic verging on kitsch, in deliberately ironic fashion. This dream cannot last, but at the same time, its sweeping power cannot be denied. “The story will end when the curtain comes down,” sings Shalev, a line that also reinforces the feeling that we’re within a musical that is taking shape.
But this feeling ultimately fades. Something of that sense of an alternative musical does endure throughout the album, but almost on a subconscious level. The songs are sung by different characters, but most of these characters are not that clearly drawn, and the story as a whole is not related that explicitly. That is, the first part of the album, with songs containing all the immigrants’ ideological passion, is relatively clear, but as the story progresses, it gets more complicated and starts to come apart. There are pockets of clarity, such as the wonderful songs about the artist who makes aliya from Russia – the “mouse” hiding inside the piano, but most of the time the plot of the songs is not so easy to grasp. One could strain to pinpoint the places where they clearly touch on the bits of Israeli history to which they refer. It’s an understandable instinct. But better not to go to all that effort. It only ends up detracting somewhat from the impact of the songs.
If all this sounds like a textual and intellectual challenge, it is to some degree. But this is where the music comes into the picture. The music makes the big and complex tale that Gad wants to tell resonate emotionally even when it becomes more opaque on other levels. Gad is well-known for his texts, and it’s clear why, but he is also an excellent composer. He knows how to make good use of the acoustic, story-telling song, a modern incarnation of the folk song, but also knows that he mustn’t spend too much time that way, so he shifts to expressing himself through rock and also to songs that create a more airy and abstract musical experience. He puts these options to superb use on this album, backed by his excellent band, The Diamonds.
Another emotional anchor on this album is the optimism that pervades it, alongside the bleaker paths that are also laid out. It’s a battered and realistic optimism. The mouse that made aliya inside the piano is very far from those fervent and starry-eyed immigrants from the first song, but he, too, finds ways to adapt to the place, or really, to maintain his right to live in it as something of a stranger.
“Being a new immigrant is something that lasts your whole life,” Gad sings near the end of the album. It makes you wonder to what extent he is also singing about himself (He made aliya as a child).
The parallel tracks of optimism and struggle continue until the album’s home stretch, when the optimistic side wins out. The great story of the eternal aliya, running up to this point, comes to an end as the possibility of a new, more normal story begins to take shape. “Instead of slaughtering sacred cows, Let’s free them in the fields / They’ll find what to do there, instead of lying around here all night,” Gad sings in “Sacred Cows and Drunken Horses.” And in the closing song he sings: “Take Highway 1 and drive toward the sunrise / Remember all the plans, forget the destruction / There’s nowhere to get off, There’s nowhere to fall / There’s nothing to sit on, There’s no one to redeem.”
A story that began with a journey to the light that rises in the east reaches an end, and a new story begins with another journey towards the light that rises in the east. But what exactly awaits that young man who is traveling on Highway 1 and is truly freed from the heavy burden of history, from the narrative of destruction and redemption, as Gad sings? Maybe he’s actually on his way to the airport, headed off to Berlin?
Shalom Gad and The Diamonds – “Hakol Hadash” (“Everything is New”), Helicon. Gad will launch the new album with a show at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv on September 3 at 20.30, with special guests Aviv Guedj, Costa Kaplan, Noga Shalev, Hila Ruach and Yedidya Belhassen.