Eviatar Banai rises early, without the aid of an alarm clock, it seems. “Birds begin to sing, I rise,” he sings in “Ayelet Hashahar” (Morning Star), one of the last songs on his new album, “Leshonot shel Esh” (Tongues of Fire). The next thing Banai does is pray: “I gather words for enlightenment / tempt the morning star / uncover the light/come, rise again / the streetlight above has gone out/it’s a new beginning / letter joins letter in motion / in the act of love and prayer.”
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What was the night before this awakening like? Not so great, to judge by other songs on the new album. In “Or ba Tzel” (Light in the Shadow), the opening song on “Tongues of Fire,” Banai sings: “I had a sleepless night, thoughts crashing into the walls of the heart.” In “Achshav” (Now), which is about the emotional price a successful artist pays for the love of a mass audience, he sings: “A thousand people put me to bed, I try to shout, I can’t do it.” In “Tamid Lifnei Hageshem” (Always Before the Rain), Banai sings, “Each night is stranger than the day.” Eight years ago he put out an album called “Laila Ka’yom Yair” (Night as the Day Does Shine), but in the new album he seems to be saying that often the night is just dark.
And so he sends a heartfelt thanks to the birds of the early morning. “My strength returns, little by little I start to walk,” Banai sings at the end of “Morning Star.” Two songs later, on “To the Other Side of the River,” the closing song on the album,” he sings: “Born, coming into the light through a narrow and painful passage.” The dawn is not just the start of the day. It is a symbolic spiritual birth that occurs each morning, with all the pain and joy this entails. That’s a lot of food for thought and feeling with the first coffee of the day (“The bitter is sweet, the bitter is sweet,” Banai sings in “Light in the Shadow.” If not for the line about the paunch hanging down to his knees in the song “Pergola,” I’d have bet that he doesn’t take a lot of sugar in his coffee).
There’s a good deal of beauty in the delicate and meditative experience that Banai depicts in “Morning Star” and other songs that take place on the seam between the day and night of the soul. There are certain lines where he truly excels at turning fragments of poetry into song. But there is no light without shadow and no sweetness without bitterness. So despite some splendid and gorgeous lyrics, the new album suffers from a fundamental problem that overshadows all of its beauty.
Musically, “Tongues of Fire” further explores the musical path begun in Banai’s previous album, “Yafa Ka’levana” (Pretty as the Moon). This album deviated from Banai’s usual musical pattern, with the songs increasingly disregarding the standard pop song structure. While the earlier album “Night as the Day Does Shine” featured well-crafted and superbly written songs like “Ad Mahar” (Until Tomorrow), “Otiot Porhot Ba’avir” (Letters Floating in the Air) and the title song, the songs on “Pretty as the Moon” were for the most part more fluid and amorphous. That’s not to say there was anything truly experimental here, but still, Banai’s deep desire to feel and express things differently was very palpable.
On “Tongues of Fire,” too, it’s hard to find songs with a traditional pop structure. This time, Banai’s musical approach can be described in his own words: In the verses he gathers words, and in the choruses he tries to find enlightenment. What this means is that the verses are composed in a very basic way, without any real melodic momentum, and performed in a way that straddles talking and singing. Then, in the chorus the song lifts off, usually on the wings of short lines that are sung in that high Banai register.
What lies behind Banai’s choice to collect the words and speak them in this way? There’s no way to know and no one to ask. Banai is one of the only singers in Israel who can choose not to be interviewed but still get a cover story in Yedioth Ahronoth’s “7 Nights” supplement, in which singers write about themselves. Somehow, in this piece, Banai does not really talk about his songwriting in any depth, so we are left to speculate. My personal theory, formed while listening to “Morning Star,” is that this approach of “gathering words” is related to the crucial place that prayer and learning occupy in Banai’s life.
Every day, when he awakes with the birds, he prays, and gathers words for enlightenment. Every day, when he studies Torah and Talmud, he dives deep into texts. These texts, which are also the spiritual foundation of the songs he writes, don’t just remain on paper: They are spoken, rolled around in the mouth in a way of speech that’s wrapped in a thin layer of melody. Of course there’s a big difference between this and Banai’s creative process, but they seem to be strongly connected. Too strongly. The speech of prayer and Torah study seeps into the work of composing, and one can imagine that, to Banai, the result glows like shining truth, because, for him, prayer and Torah study are just that. But to my ears, there wasn’t enough of the wonderful music that Banai is able to compose and sing, and therefore, the truth they held failed to excite.
This is not the case throughout the album, though. There are some songs on “Tongues of Fire” in which the brief melody of the chorus manages to compensate for the all the wordiness and talkiness of the verse and raise the entire song to a level of real beauty and truth. “Light in the Shadow” is one such song, largely due to Banai’s magnificent singing. On “Pergola,” something similar occurs when Banai shifts from the feverish talk of the verses to the gorgeous chorus (“I will bring water, I will bring a ray of sunlight”). “Always Before the Rain,” which I didn’t warm to at first, ultimately won me over with its poetic lyrics about the search for love.
The title song, “Tongues of Fire,” also justifies the overall lyrical approach here. It may not be the best song on the album, but it’s the most interesting and hardest-hitting. The lyric-packed verse is not concerned with Banai’s usual soul-searching, but rather depicts a kind of Israeli microcosm as seen in a typical twilight hour in the Ramot neighborhood in Jerusalem where Banai lives, and on a more symbolic level, perhaps reflects the ideal human composition of Israeli society as Banai sees it. Suddenly, the chorus intrudes on this neighborhood idyll: “The sun hurls tongues of fire,” Banai sings, and for the only time on the album, it seems, he clenches his voice into a shout. There is a lot of power in this cry, and an enigmatic dimension as well. These tongues of fire – do they burn or do they bring warmth, or both?
The four favorably described songs above all appear on the first half of the album, which was produced by Tamir Muskat (the second half of “Tongues of Fire,” which also contains six songs, was produced by Naor Carmi). Muskat has done sensitive and creative work here, which has a lot to do with why the first half of the album, despite the difficulty of the aesthetic employed by Banai, works so well. The second half of the album requires more effort on the part of the listener, not because Carmi didn’t do a good job, but mainly because by then Banai’s musical aesthetic and lyrical overload is starting to wear thin.
The album’s home stretch brings a surprising twist in the plot – the return of the standard song. On paper, this is good news for those who aren’t as captivated by the overall style here and miss the melodic mastery of the old Eviatar Banai. Unfortunately, though, “Ata” (You), a duet with Aviv Geffen, and “Ad Hatzad Hasheni shel Hanahar” (To the Other Side of the River) are just mediocre songs that only heighten the wistful longing for the kind of artistry that Banai, for better or worse, left behind some time ago.