Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review of Matisyahu's "Undercurrent"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website.

Review Summary: "You've been traveling the speed of light, you've been searching. You've been moving all of your life, you've been reaching."

I'm going to be honest here. I shouldn't really be the person to review this album. Matisyahu's music generally combines reggae and hip-hop, and his lyrics are often reflections of Hebrew spirituality. I've never been a fan of hip-hop, and while I like reggae, my knowledge of it doesn't run much deeper than Bob Marley. As for Hebrew spirituality, I took a course in it once, but that's about it. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and spent 12 years in Catholic school, so I suspect I'm ill equipped for any deep understanding of orthodox Jewish thought. Here's the thing, though. My guess is that if I didn't review Undercurrent for this site, no one else was going to either. And that would be a shame, because this is a beautiful album.

Matisyahu first burst onto the scene with his second album, Youth, in 2006, which charted #4 on the Billboard charts. At that time, he sported a full beard and identified as a Hasidic Jew. Hailed by some as the "Reggae Rabbi", he performed on the late night talk show circuit, where he was treated as something of a novelty act. Since that time, his musical and mystical journeys have continued, even as his mass popularity has waned somewhat. These days, he is beardless, and his music has moved more in the direction of hip-hop and improvisational rock and further away from reggae. Undercurrent, his sixth studio album and his first self-produced one, has yet to chart. Then again, there hasn't exactly been a massive amount of publicity given to this album.

The music on Undercurrent was largely written by Matisyahu's band, who improvised for hours while he listened. Gradually various sonic themes were developed into songs, onto which he eventually grafted his beats and lyrics. Consequently, what developed was an album filled with lush soundscapes that were allowed to develop at their own pace. It's a subtle album -- it takes repeated listens to really take in the music. Don't look for pop hooks here. Instead, just sit back and let the music take you.

My biggest criticism is that as a result of way the album was created, some of the tracks tend to meander. There are only eight songs in all, the shortest of which is "Back to the Old" at nearly five-and-a-half minutes. So sometimes, the songs continue well past the time you're ready for them to end. Nevertheless, much of the music is exquisite. I particularly like the guitar work here, which I presume is done largely by Aaron Dugan. I say presume because sadly, this is one of those albums that is packaged in such a way that the song credits are written in about 2-1/2 pt. type on a colored background -- even a magnifying glass won't help you here. Anyway, the songs are mostly slow, and the guitar work reminds me of David Gilmour's. Not that it mimics his style, but more because it's somehow very expressive without being overly flashy. Dugan says a lot with just a few notes. The keyboards, which are probably provided by a musician called Big Yuki, are strong as well. (Dugan and Big Yuki are, to best of my and Wikipedia's knowledge, Matisyahu's most recent guitarist and keyboardist).

As for Matisyahu himself, he appears to be having a ball here, trying on different hats in various songs, as he rhymes and sings his way through a montage of roles, all the while reflecting on themes of seeking the divine, making yourself into the person you always knew you could be, etc. In "Back to the Old", he imagines himself as a frail old man dependent on his son, while in "BSP: Blue Sky Playground", he and his childhood friend watch their children play together and reminisce about their own playground days. Sprinkled throughout are references to dreidels, the Rabbi Nachman, Pharoah, etc. that let you know you're traveling through a very specific cultural landscape. There are also various references to the BQE (Brooklyn Queens Expressway), the LIE (Long Island Expressway) and Crown Heights, which remind you that you can take the boy out of New York, but ... well, you know.

The standout track on the album is the first one, "Step Out Into the Light". It's a deliberate song with just a bit of an edge, as the somewhat formless verses suddenly coalesce into a tight and inspirational chorus. Thematically, it's about our endless quest to find some kind of ultimate reality, and about standing on the cusp of the fruition of that journey. There's some tasty sax playing at the climax of this song, which then fades into some noodling acoustic guitar notes. Awesome stuff.

"BSP: Blue Sky Playground" is another track that really kicks it into gear on the chorus. I wish I could tell you who the other rapper is on this track, but once again, 2-1/2 pt. type on the credits = me rapidly losing my eyesight. But it's a good collaboration with, well, somebody. "Forest of Faith", on the other hand, has a mysterious quality to the music, with lyrics like "Colonial ghosts make a sound like 'whoosh' ", and a chorus that asks the eternal question (of God?) "What a man gotta do/To get through to you?"

Love him or hate him, Matisyahu just keeps following his own path. He's long since proven that he's much more than just a novelty act. If you're willing to take your own leap of faith, and follow him on a spirit quest through a desert filled with new musical structures and visions, you'll be rewarded with sounds both dazzling and arcane. This album may never make the Billboard charts, but it's a sure bet to make my Top Ten albums for this year.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars