veryone wishes they were better than they are. We all have good intentions and big ideas for improving ourselves and the world we inhabit, telling ourselves we’ll do more volunteer work, that we’ll be more vocal in our support of causes and more vigilant in our opposition to injustice. We feel a vague but unmistakable desire to spend more time fostering our spirits and purging our lives of wickedness and waste.
Most of the time, these noble aims fall by the wayside, not solely because we lack the diligence or discipline to see them through, but also because we as humans are so adept at finding temporary placebos for our spiritual and humanistic cravings. A $25 donation to OxFam (guilty). Two measly hours spent boxing up food for Katrina victims (guilty again). Renting and watching the suicide bomber drama Paradise Now with appropriate sympathy and outrage (just did that one, actually). Buying a Matisyahu CD.
Detractors of the Hasidic-reggae rhyme-spitter often label him mushy NPR fare, a perfectly safe pan-cultural option for aging liberals who enjoy the smell of their own emissions, so to speak. But I think there’s more to it than that. For one thing, you don’t move the units Matis has moved by appealing solely to Dennis Kucinich’s base.
My guess is a whole bunch of Matisyahu’s fans are idealistic young people who feel a gnawing urge for self-betterment and get an easy salve from his songs of religious asceticism. Unlike many other intensely conscientious pop stars (even including Matis’ dormroom antecedent Bob Marley), the nominal Matthew Miller’s music really can’t be mistaken for simple party fare. No matter how dense the pot smoke, the purity of M’s vision pierces through. And yet (and this is important) the tunes themselves go down smoother than those new Heinie Lights, meaning we can achieve a suitable sense of self-actualization without ever having to actually dampen our buzz.
In fact, the only one doing any real work here is Matis himself. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t talk to ladies—in the ultimate show of spiritual austerity, he doesn’t even seem to be enjoying the spoils of his fame. Meanwhile, we can continue blissfully indulging in all of our vices, so long as we fool ourselves into thinking we’re trying to mend our ways. Listening to Matisyahu is a small but certainly not inconsequential step in that direction.
So a man exhibits a genuinely admirable dedication to spiritual principles and makes tremendous sacrifices the likes of which would cause 99% of us to run for the hills. Somehow he makes incredibly pop-palatable music in the process (unless you really believe everybody’s just buying his record for the sheer novelty of it, which I think is pretty much bullshit). So what about the actual music behind the man with the admittedly Ripley’s-worthy gimmick?
Well, to be fair, much of it does seem tailored to suit the NORML crowd—reggae dabblers, DMB acolytes, and other proponents of crunchy grooves. Righteous-minded rabble-rousers like “Fire of Heaven/Altar of Earth,” “Youth” (which starts off like thrice-Xeroxed early-90s RHCP) and “Dispatch the Troops” (his Sublime-est moment) probably earn the most misplaced cries of “fuck yeah!” in concert, but they’re clearly Matisyahu’s weak spots, awkwardly pedantic where they should be stirringly anthemic. “What I’m Fighting For” is another misstep, an acoustic soul cry that bids to be Miller’s own take on Marley’s deathless “Redemption Song,” but can’t overcome the heir aspirant’s inability to actually sing.
Matisyahu’s artistic limitations have all been well-documented, but what’s gotten lost in the rush to label and negate him as just another brief Billboard aberration is the fact that Youth boasts quite a number of truly lovely lightweight tunes, some even better than the cheerfully moralizing “King Without a Crown,” the smash single that first brought Matis’ gentle hectoring to pop ears.
Though I imagine he’d like us all to be pumping our fists along with his strident sing-alongs, Matis fares much better with brightly-fashioned pop than polemics. Credit likely goes to legendary dub producer Bill Laswell for the busy, shimmering arrangements that make Youth surprisingly salvageable. Brisk, twinkly stuff like “Indestructible” and “Time of Your Song” might feel overly ephemeral at first, but much like Madonna’s recent devotionals, it’s with this happy quasi-spiritual fluff that Matisyahu really shines. Miller even manages to convey real beauty and longing in these quieter moments, pledging solidarity in “Jerusalem” and actually admitting some vulnerability and doubt in the utterly spellbinding “Late Night in Zion.”
Once a Phish-jocking student himself, Matisyahu makes an excellent stand-in for the best-laid plans of his younger demographic. In a culture of habitual self-improvement he represents an ideal (or if you prefer, extreme)—one that few of us will ever even attempt to attain, sure, but one that makes us all feel a little bit better about ourselves for endorsing. Perhaps you can’t write off purchasing Youth on your taxes, but it’s still plenty more enjoyable than a PBS tote bag.