Matisyahu, the man who refuses to fit into any box, has been touring quite a bit lately, with multiple shows each week in some of the coolest cities’ best venues (like the State Theatre in Portland, Maine, and the place I saw Bob Dylan in South Burlington, Vermont). He’ll be bringing his reggae based tunes with Jewish themes to Atlanta on January 7th and 8th for what are bound to be two very special shows. He released Akeda in 2014, which reached #3 on Top Independent Albums and #4 on Top Rap Albums. While it comes ten years after his initial release of Shake off the Dust… Arise, it illustrates the evolution of the constantly metamorphosing musician.
The opening track, “Reservoir,” exudes grateful energy as Matisyahu lays down vocals – gradually at first, like pedaling a bicycle up a hill – over a swelling piano that explodes just as the lyrics pick up steam and coast, proclaiming the need to keep going throughout the struggle (because those who came before us had it much harder). Matisyahu is a poet, using all the energy and heat and fusion within his power to put words together like a finely linked chain mail. His words protect him from life’s challenges, and give strength to countless others.
The intro to “Broken Car” sounds like the sun coming out after days of rain. With a strong reggae bass, Matisyahu presents metaphor after metaphor for trust – the blind kind, that kind of trust that makes it okay to be an imperfect person in a perfectly imperfect situation. This is a track that all college students should hear as they barricade themselves in the library before finals. This is a track for anyone believes in the long shot, a track to otherwise convince the rest.
In a lyric video for “Watch the Walls Melt Down,” Matisyahu and his buddies travel in a restored VW van as the sun sets over scenic views. He sings of leaving behind his previous life to follow his true destiny, and, just like the people of Israel taking the city of Jericho, he sings, “I watch the walls melt down… fade away.” With organic percussion and a millennial yawp, “Champion” grabs the listener’s attention. This is a well-produced track dreamed up by a musician at the top of his game. This is the sort of song that non-profits dealing in unenviable sicknesses drool over while choosing the sound of a new campaign. “You’re a champion,” sings Matisyahu, with those irresistible reggae vocals that make me wonder about the naturalness of such vowel choices coming out of a guy who grew up in New York.
Zion I (Baba Zumbi and Amp Live) join Matisyahu on “Built to Survive,” an almost downtempo track with a soaring chorus and lyrics preaching the principal message of the album: whatever happens, you’ll persevere. If he had fewer scruples, Matisyahu could brand his message, perhaps even sell it in the form of graphic tees, screenprinted yarmulkes, and other merch. But time and again, Matisyahu proves to the world that he is a quality human being, the kind that can proffer hope to the hopeless, that can make boring people dance, and can keep runners going for just a few more minutes of cardiovascular assault. “Built to Survive” is a testament to decent interpretations of the Old Testament, and of the infinite possibilities of life itself.
The album continues the turn toward the alternative with “Ayeka (Teach Me to Love)”. In the lyrics, Matisyahu answers the question asked by the Hebrew word ayeka: Where are you? (God first asked Adam this question in Genesis.) By defining for himself where he is emotionally, Matisyahu reveals for himself a path forward. That delicious, delectable reggae bassline return in full force for “Black Heart.” With a low larynx and high power, Matisyahu delivers line after line of luscious lyrics. Here, he acknowledges his own impermanence (“Fold crash and crumble / I decompose / And run back to the grass / Back to the last moment intact / In a flash it’ll be over / And we’ll be back) but offers hope that he can make something marvelous out of life: “I get lost for a while when I’m under attack / I took my freedom back and took the path unmapped.” If he has taken control before, he can do it again. Perhaps the most powerful thing he holds between his palms is his trust in himself.
With the intensity of the song that catapulted Eminem into the stars (“Lose Yourself”), “Star on the Rise” begins with the narrative of a man who has lost the strength to go on. The track explodes into a chorus of optimism, full of percussion and drums, and layers of vocals. Ultimately, one must move forward. “Surrender” opens with a tantalizing melody that is soon joined in by Matisyahu’s vocals. Speeding through rhymes and slowing down for emphasis, he wields the English language like one of those Southern preachers who takes the Bible literally. The slower pace of “Surrender” gives it an introspective vibe, gifting the listener with the opportunity to savor Matisyahu’s voice, warm and smooth like chicken soup.
In an ode to getting up after you’ve fallen down, Collie Buddz joins Matisyahu on “Confidence.” The song does not have the allusions, allegories, or metaphors of the other tracks, which perhaps extends the potential reach of the message. In a video created for the song, different people hold up signs of handwritten lyrics. “Vow of Silence (Shalom)” makes up for the lack of allusions in the previous track, hijacking the listener’s ears and taking them into dancehall territory. The song was written for Matisyahu’s son, as a reminder to stay strong, to do good, and to keep peace in his heart.
Strings and restrained vocals welcome the listener in for “Obstacles,” a track that rises and falls as Matisyahu pays homage to that universal unity that only through the foolishness of individuals, is divided. “No matter how you fan / this flame it all comes out the same / in the end you are my friend,” he sings. I wonder what his thoughts are on reality TV. “Hard Way” takes on that slow intensity that Matisyahu does so well, interspersed with a vocally-driven chorus along the lines of the Socratic paradox. The penultimate track of the album, “Sick For So Long,” surprises with an almost bluesy sound. This is a song worth returning to, with subsequent listens one gleans greater meaning from the lyrics and their delivery. With a cotch beat and psychedelic guitar, Matisyahu ends the song with a Hebrew verse as beautiful in its assonance as it is in its exotic fricatives, with a little bit of beatboxing for good measure.
“Akeda” is the perfect track to end such an album of such potency. In the track, Matisyahu shares his desire to be a better person, starting where he is now. The song title refers to the binding of Isaac, where God asked Abraham to tie up his son Isaac to sacrifice him. Sort of one of those “I just wanted to see if you’d really do it” situations… or maybe as a punishment for something else Abraham did. (Either way, it sucks to be Isaac.) The idea here is faith. Matisyahu wants you to keep your faith, to keep moving forward, and to conquer your world.
Matisyahu is a prolific musician well on his way to touching the stars. His most recent album takes everything he was already doing well and amplifies them by one thousand percent. Akeda is an album to listen to over and over, to draw upon for strength, and to reassure you in moments of doubt. It is a celebration of the good in life while recognizing that somethings shit happens. If you’re anywhere near Atlanta on January 8th, check him out at City Winery. If you want to catch his acoustic show on the 7th at the Marcus Jewish Community Center, enter to win tickets from Libro Musica.