Israeli Singer Assaf Amdursky Turns Social Critic in New Album

The album has moments of powerful beauty, but sometimes the passion and humanism seem more important than the art.

Assaf Amdursky.
Ohad Romano

The sun shines on the cover of Assaf Amdursky’s new album. The sun also shines in the songs themselves. The word “sun” can be either masculine or feminine in Hebrew, and Amdursky takes advantage of this linguistic space, thereby demonstrating that he loves the language – meaning that he loves the place.

In the song “If We’ll Know How to Lose,” the sun is masculine. That’s surprising, as we usually think of the sun as feminine. It’s a fine choice, because the song talks about renewal, and when the sun shines in the masculine the feeling of renewal is more acute than when it shines in the feminine form.

In the next song, the sun returns to its usual form: “The sun [feminine] sinks low, it will collect them like a good mother,” Amdursky sings. The compassion and the softness oblige the choice of the feminine form. But this is only one side of this complex, excellent song; it also contains dark hues, with the music dancing with tears in its eyes within a space of sweeping, dramatic synthpop, bordering on the tragic.

Assaf Amdurskys "Towers."

The sun not only embraces, it is also painful. “In the scorching sun at the foot of the lighthouse the commanders hand out a transparent plastic cup and jangle coins,” Amdursky intones in “The Commanders of Mugrabi.” That’s one of the most powerful urban images we’ve had lately in Israeli music: direct but also enigmatic, with an apocalyptic, hallucination-engendering undercurrent. It would be interesting to know if “Blade Runner” was screened at the Mugrabi Cinema, and whether the poet David Avidan attended one of the screenings, and whether it happened on Independence Day, at the same time as the air force’s flyby over the shoreline. According to the song, all the answers are correct.

“The Commanders of Mugrabi” is the heart of Amdursky’s new album, largely because it’s the moment at which the two central axes of the album – which is titled “Here” (“Po” in Hebrew) – intersect. One axis, acutely present at the opening of the album and its conclusion as well, is that of social criticism. The first song, “Towers,” and the last, “Transparent People,” are tirades against the insensitivity, vulgarity and worship of mammon that characterize 2016 Israel. These songs are set in the city, and it’s no accident that they contain no sun, either masculine or feminine.

“From the high stories of the new towers it’s not by chance that we look small,” Amdursky sings in “Towers.” But our situation, that of Israelis who live on the lower floors, is immeasurably better than that of the transparent people of the last song on the album, named as “Alex and Sergei from the Soviet.” There is also an ill-fated and unnamed woman, who also came here from another place.

In both songs, the passion and the humanism that impel Amdursky, though estimable in themselves, are greater than the artistic validity. “Towers” is a good song that doesn’t disguise its great debt to the Israeli new wave of the early 1980s, but a sharper, more expressive voice than Amdursky’s is needed for it to achieve its full potential. “Transparent People,” whose style recalls Depeche Mode (apropos the expressive voice Amdursky lacks), is also defective in its writing. Amdursky is entering the tricky territory of the concrete personal story, but he doesn’t have the eye of someone like, say, Amir Lev.

One creative body

The second axis of the album, which extends across most of the songs, stands in almost complete opposition to the first – it is both contrary and complementary. Its setting is not the city, but a quieter territory that is distinctly non-urban. The dominant dynamic is not that of the struggle between people and the cruel social framework that confines them. On the contrary, it’s a dynamic of merging and harmony. There are no towers that block out the sun and there is nothing to prevent the water from flowing. In some of the songs this mood assumes a relatively concrete form of finding personal happiness, in others it remains abstract and undeciphered.

I prefer the more abstract songs (“A Different Language,” “Yellow Fields”) both textually and musically. They encourage Amdursky to play a fine game of checks and balances between relatively abstract synthesizer minimalism and a net of groove that he can’t do without – and that is all to the good.

Assaf Amdurskys "Yellow Fields."

The personal-happiness songs need clearer melodies, which Amdursky doesn’t give them. In “If We Will Know How to Lose,” he travels “from the north, from the north of this suffocation,” recalling “Train to the North,” the superb song that opened his 2008 album “Harei At.” But even the rising sun can’t prevent the new song from paling in the face of the old one. In contrast, “How Beautiful it is from Afar,” another of the soft songs of harmony on the new album, is every bit as good as similar songs from the singer’s previous releases and is perhaps the most “Amdursky-esque” song of this album.

Still, the most striking beauty of “Here” is concentrated in the album’s sixth and seventh tracks. The sixth, “The Commanders of Mugrabi,” has already been mentioned – the moment when the angry-concrete-urban meets the soft, abstract axis and the two contrary-complementary thrusts of the album merge into one creative body. That fine song flows without a pause into a marvelous instrumental piece called “Five Birds,” which simulates, by means of computerized, unabashedly unnatural sounds, the voices of birds, or at least that’s what it sounds like. It’s just one minute long, but contains more music and inspiration that most recent Israeli albums.