Singer on Fire

Amir Benayoun's new album reunites his yin and yang, his passion and sound judgment, and justifies his top standing in the major leagues of local music.

When Amir Benayoun burst onto the center stage of Israeli music at the end of the 90s, he proved that the spiciest dish on the menu can also be the most popular. The singer-songwriter's singles and albums won a place in the hearts of tens of thousands of listeners, despite the fact that he did not "dilute" them in any way. It was a rare and heartwarming case of hard core pleasing the masses.

But during the last three or four years something changed, not to say gone awry, in the way that Benayoun works. He began dividing his time between two modes of creation: One path, which has regularly kicked up a storm, has involved presenting himself as a kind of singing online post, who responds to current events with songs that took about a minute to write. The second path, reflected in Benayoun's albums, features him in a more minor-key sort of mood, perhaps even excessively minor. In albums such as "Mahshavot" ("Thoughts" - with Yehuda Masas ) from 2010 and "Leda'at Hakol" ("To Know Everything" ) from last year, there were moments of beauty, but not a significant amount of inspiration. Excellent albums are ones that blend passion and sound judgment, and since Benayoun channeled his passion into the protest poetry and judgment into the albums, these two mindsets did not meet up. Several years went by without his producing an excellent album.

Amir Benayoun - Ohad Romano
Ohad Romano

Until now. Benayoun's new CD, "Etz al Mayim" ("Tree on Water" ), reunites his yin and yang, his passion and sound judgment, and the encounter results in the first work by him in several years whose quality fully justifies his top standing in the major leagues of Israeli music.

The musical fire in this album is Benayoun's singing, and that is not surprising: From a vocal perspective he was always an expressionist, and his riotous cry to the heavens is his No. 1 hallmark. But it seems that on his new album he turns up the heat even more than ever before. It's as though he felt an urgent need to make a powerful artistic statement. On first listening, there was something off-putting about this vocal outburst, but it soon became clear that the songs can contain it, precisely because they are themselves composed in a more traditional and less strident manner than Benayoun usually employs.

Benayoun's usual style is unique. In contrast to the vast majority of songwriters, who allow the harmony to dictate the melody - his songs sound like they do not stem from the harmonic process. They frequently have some special, nonconformist twist that makes them sound as if they are drawn directly out of the undulations in Benayoun's voice. When this succeeds it is great. But in many cases it does not, and then the "spicy Benayoun specialty" comes off sounding stale, recycled. On his last albums there were too many songs that belonged to that category.

Benayoun has not altered his style of composing, but it seems that on "Tree on Water," he has let himself adopt harmonic patterns that come from traditional Israeli music: from the songs of Naomi Shemer, through Yehuda Poliker and Shlomo Artzi, to other, Mediterranean-style composers. The upshot is a series of melodies that have steady and firm foundations, which the listener can hum (in contrast to Benayoun's more free-flowing tunes, which are created only when he sings them, but cannot exist without him ).

The latest CD also contains a few melodies of the convoluted Benayoun variety, and the fact that they are a minority on this album makes them even more piquant. The best example is "Aharei she'nikra hayam," - a near-chaotic musical drama in which Benayoun comes very close to sounding like Shlomo Bar in a virtuoso guttural display of rhythmic spoken-sung verses.

That same song delivers what I would call the X-factor of this album: Miriam Benayoun, the singer's wife - who for the first time has written lyrics on one of her spouse's albums. Miriam Benayoun wrote a total of four songs on "Tree on Water" (one-third of the tracks on the CD ), but makes a definite mark and infuses the album with added interest, novelty and depth. Her tone is very different from her husband's: She writes like a poet, and the way she "photographs" her soul and consciousness in doing so is much more stylized than his agitated contemplation, which begins to become tiresome when it comes in over-the-top doses. Her writing, in feminine-gendered Hebrew, also creates an interesting situation, in which Amir sings from within Miriam's consciousness - effectively creating a hybrid character that sings in the feminine Hebrew form, from the deep throat of a man. And another thing: His love songs (there are at least three here ) assume an extra dimension by their sheer juxtaposition with her songs, whose "addressee" is not a beloved man but rather - if I understand it correctly - God.

Now it is clear why Benayoun managed to refrain from releasing an instant protest song about the exclusion of women in Orthodox society. Miriam Benayoun's contribution to this excellent album is a quiet and profound protest in and of itself, from which any addition would merely detract.