Shalom Hanoch's New Album Stares Death in the Face

Along with the shadow of death that hovers over Hanoch’s new album, there is a flight from that darkness into the shelter of love. Despite the thin material, his songs continue to be meaningful.

Orit Pnini

Three years ago, I decided to keep my distance from concerts of Shalom Hanoch, the iconic singer-songwriter, and especially from mass shows in which he sings with his band. I reached that decision after seeing him perform at an open-air festival near Binyamina. Befitting his lofty status, Hanoch came on late at night, the last item of the festival. He performed many of the great songs that had won him his status. I say “performed” rather than “sang,” because he didn’t sing. He declaimed. Or, at most, he did half and half. Whatever the style was, he absolutely butchered his marvelous songs, sending them crashing down from sublime melodic heights to second-rate, sodden depths. As those songs are engraved on my heart, it was a very sad event for me, and I decided that it would be best simply to avoid Hanoch’s shows in the future.

Given my still-lingering memory of that performance, I have to admit that I listened to Hanoch’s new album, “The Occurrence and the Mistake” with high, perhaps exaggerated sensitivity to the vocal aspect. Still, another part of me fully – and hopefully – acknowledged that an album is a very different thing from a live show. An album is far more amenable to control: you can record and re-record until you get a result that satisfies you. You can calibrate your voice patiently. Moreover, Hanoch’s new songs were undoubtedly written with an awareness of the limitations of his aging voice (he’s 68), in contrast to the now-classic songs that were written for a young man with fresh cords and smoking mileage that, while long, was not yet endless.

In short, my expectation was that Hanoch and his longtime producers, Louis Lahav and Moshe Levy, would tailor the songs and the album to Hanoch’s current voice and capabilities. Naturally, the songs themselves are very important, but the right vocal cut seemed to be a necessary condition for the album’s success.

After listening to the album, I can’t report an impressive achievement in this regard. Hanoch sings far less badly than he did in that performance three years ago, but he doesn’t succeed in reaching the critical bar at which the positive value of the unavoidable rust that coats the voice of a great but aging artist balances the negative value. Most of the time, on the new album, the negative aspect outweighs the positive in Hanoch’s singing.

The track that best reflects both the potential and the missed opportunity in vocal terms is “Always Now.” The track before it, “Can’t Get Enough of Me,” a rock song with pretensions to naughtiness, is the album’s vocal nadir, the hardest song to listen to. At its conclusion, the listener breathes a sigh of relief. Now comes the reflective quiet of “Always Now.” Hanoch’s entry is simultaneously very authoritative and very delicate. Strong and weak. Effortless. He’s living the song but also observing it from afar. This is exactly how a singer who’s approaching 70 should sound. But a moment later, in the chorus, he’s straining again, and the listener strains with him and regrets it. The song itself is lovely, but the singing doesn’t allow it to stay lovely. It lowers it to the level of “Yes, but.”

Leaf in the wind

The fact that there are quite a few “Yes, but” moments here means that this is an album whose songs are better than their performance. Nothing glorious, far from it.

Nor are the older Hanoch’s limitations confined to voice and singing. His writing has long since lost its marvelous momentum and thrust. That’s something that happens to all great artists, and it’s fine; Hanoch himself is aware of it and writes about it. He writes a lot about it. On his previous album he took a snipe at himself (“He feels now that he doesn’t know how to say the main thing”) and then added the terrific words, “And he engraves in order not to forget, precisely now when he no longer feels potent.”

The theme of fatigue and the drying up of the creative wellsprings persists in the new album, too. The theme song ends with the words, “I’m fading.” In “To Forget that it’s Not Good” Hanoch sings, “I laugh and then forget that I have nothing left to say.” And in “Hanging on a Note” he describes himself as a passive being, a leaf buffeted by the wind.

But despite this weakness, or perhaps because of the acceptance of it, Hanoch manages to go on recording songs of value. He transforms the thinning of the material into his new material. In other words, this is an album in which the shadow of death is felt, but at the same time it tells of an escape from that shadow into the shelter of love. An album that contains these two contradictory-complementary thrusts can’t be bad, however flawed – sometimes frustratingly so – it may be in execution.

The second half of the album sounds better than the first; is this due to the fact that Hanoch’s strained singing becomes less obtrusive because we gradually get used to it? Possibly. It’s also possible that the songs in the second half are a little better.

From the eighth song on, the remainder of the album can be enjoyed almost unconditionally: the love poem of “Silent Whisper,” the beautiful atmospheric soundtrack of “To Forget that it’s Not Good,” the patient and sensitive observation of “A Great Writer,” the mischievous politics of “Muhammad” and, above all, the whispering loveliness of the concluding track, “Summer Night.” The style of that song – lyrics by the great poet Nathan Alterman set to a marvelous tune – is a throwback to the old Hebrew songs, a style which Hanoch (together with other musicians) has abandoned, but to which he remains attached with every fiber of his being. This time the hoarseness of his voice works to his benefit, reflecting his age without hampering the song; and the presence of the word “night” amid a splendid tune in the classic style of Hebrew song cannot but bring to mind – without any pretense of comparison, of course – the gorgeous song of that title that Hanoch wrote at the age of 15. A thrilling closing of a circle? We won’t deny it.