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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Matisyahu: “Youth” review

Matisyahu: “Youth” review

by S Shirazi | February 20, 2007

MatishuaMatthew Miller was a Jewish stoner who dropped out of high school in upstate New York to follow the hippie jam-band Phish around the country. He grew his hair in dreadlocks and listened to Grateful Dead tapes. After finishing his studies at a wilderness school in Oregon, where he rapped at open mikes and practiced beatboxing in his bedroom, he moved to New York to attend college at the lefty-alternative New School. Sometime around 2001, he was approached by a Lubavitcher in Washington Square Park and subsequently converted to Orthodox Judaism.

Miller now fronts a rap-reggae band under his Hebrew name Matisyahu, performing in full Hasidic garb: a black hat, untrimmed beard, and long black suit jacket and trousers. His first album, Shake off the Dust and Arise, was released on the non-profit label JDub records and is currently out of print for contractual reasons. Though much of it is musically pretty generic, it feels solid and has a kind of purity to it, as if it were a lost piece from another era. There's something charming about it, especially the beauty of Miller's voice as he sings and chants.

His second album, Youth, was produced by NYC veteran Bill Laswell and released by Sony last year. More of a pop-hybrid, it quickly sold a few hundred thousand units. I have seen Matisyahu referred to several times as a superstar, which is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but his odd backstory does make great copy; he has been the subject of numerous magazine profiles, including one in Rolling Stone. Critics seem to agree that he is a genuine talent, not a novelty act, though Pitchfork came in heavily on the backlash at first, measuring him against the high standard of his Jamaican source material instead of gauging him more appropriately against bands with similar influences such as UB40, The Red Hot Chili Peppers or Rage Against The Machine.

Matisyahu liveMatisyahu has two singles which made the Billboard charts, “Jerusalem” and “King Without a Crown.” The refrain of the former is “Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it's supposed to do.” This is a magnificent and haunting lyric. My first take on it was: I am a warrior for Israel and carry my weapon in my strong right hand and I must never stop fighting for my people.

After a few more listenings, I took its meaning somewhat more broadly, as a lamentation of age: If I forget my past and my origins, may I be crippled. If I forget my true self, may my own body betray me as punishment.

Maybe there's something wrong with me, but this song makes me cry so hard I think I'm going to vomit. Why should it be so moving? I suppose it is sad to be reminded that we live in a world in which a person can forget even the thing they hold most dear. Family, friends, youthful dreams, whatever is forsaken must eventually be forgotten as well.

Perhaps it is even sadder to me because I don't know what my own right hand is good for anymore besides jerking off in the shower. When my daughter was two I used to feed her yogurt with a spoon but now she can feed herself. I still hold her hand for safety when we are in a parking lot or going down the stairs, her extended index finger wrapped in my grasp or mine in hers — it always makes me think of a “pig in a blanket”-- but when she outgrows this I fear my hand will have little left to do but shred junk mail and tear open bills.

I have no idea what I should be working on: another blog entry, a short story, a longer essay, some kind of publishable book. I'm not sure either of these hands ever knew what they were supposed to do. Did I forget my Jerusalem or never know it? Have I forgotten it once or a thousand times?

MatisyauBut isn't every Jerusalem lost the moment it becomes a symbol of something other than itself? Isn't a person lost the moment they have an emotional reaction to a mythic name, forgetting their actual hometown or the actual place where they are currently living?

Part of the figure's pathos comes from the employment of prosopoiea and catechresis, i.e. speaking as if one's hand were a person who could forget, when actually only a brain or mind can do so. The wrongness of this subliminally and fatally stacks the deck against memory's prospects: of course the hand will forget, dummy, because hands can't remember in the first place. The metaphor works in part by not working, by its awkwardness. It is programmed to fail, like a chassis meant to crumple in a crash or a windshield that will shatter to reduce injury.

Since the 19th Century, modern religion has tried to salvage itself by turning doubt into the central religious experience instead of faith, by feeding off of doubt as a noble and hysterical species of suffering, peddling agony as a replacement for grace, making doubt into a divine punishment for unworthiness and into a punishment for doubt itself. The lyric partakes of this strategic self-flagellation.

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