This post has been clogging up the blog for the last week. I just can’t seem to get it right, and now I know why.
I like to write about things that I like. I try to stay positive, to be a thumbs-up, glass-is-half-full fella. But even when trying my best to stick to the bright side of life, I find it’s all too easy to slip into cynicism and find fault. Just a few snarky remarks can undercut the upbeat and chase the joy away from a sunshiny day. And as the adage goes, it only takes one bad apple to poison the punch.
So here’s the problem: I just don’t like this record! I love Matisyahu, but something was off. So yesterday, to double-check my lens, cleanse the palate, and tighten up the eardrums, I listened back to my (and, I’m guessing, your) introduction to the man: Live At Stubb’s. What a disc! I was lucky enough to catch the Stubb’s-era band shortly thereafter. They took the stage and put on the kind of show that gets you high even if you’re keeping your feet on the ground, chemically speaking.
The band was still a little green, which you can hear on Stubb’s. For every hot lick and tight break, there’s a meandering noodle-to-nowhere moment. Babylon By Bus this was not. But the troubles were forgivable as the guys were still fresh enough to get really, Really, OMG! excited about playing to a few thousand people in a college town a thousand miles from home. They weren’t deer-in-the-headlights self-star struck, but there was this sense of collective joy that the dream was coming true and we were all in this together.
And the frontman had a burning fire in the belly. Far past rolling in the shtick, his earnest recounting of his people’s past and his Let’s-Go-Build-Us-A-Temple! enthusiasm for the future made you forget that there was anything strange about the scene. But, alas, that was then.
The critical response to this new album has been strangely kind. Not that it’s been fawning; it’s been split 50/50. What surprises me is that the critiques of the actual music have been fair to positive, pointing out the Sly & Robbie collaborations and other bits of finely-tuned production. The scathing remarks have been directed much more at the man, this oddity named Matisyahu. Sometimes it’s cheap shots at all purveyors of kidnapped reggae, a broadside condemnation of the music’s colonization by the fairer-skinned peoples, with curses cast in passing at the likes of Sublime and 311. (The Clash will always get a true-punk pass on these things.) Often the ire is focused on the historical inaccuracy of the spectacle.
Although Matisyahu stretches your eclecticism tolerance to new heights, what could be more natural? A hippie kid rediscovering his Jewish roots would find it hard to miss some sort of cosmic connection to the chant-down-Babylon music of the Jamaican champions of the Ethiopian Zion. If you’ve got a beef with authenticity, pick a fight with the original Rastafarians for misappropriating 3000 years of glorious tradition (from Moses to Sandy Koufax), not some Phish-following kid who decided to borrow it back.
Not that this is a reggae album, which is the real problem. “Light” is a mash-up of Hip-Hop hype and Jack Johnson tripe that loses itself in a thousand-layered studio sheen. But I’m a loyal fan, and I’ll be here for the next one. Looking up expectantly, channeling my inner Norman Vincent Peale, believing that Matisyahu will rediscover his inner Stubb’s, and that good things are a-gonna come.