‘Spark Seeker’ shows Matisyahu’s artistic evolution

By Barry Gilbert, Special to the Jewish Light

“Well those Tel Aviv girls really knock me out,” Matisyahu sings on his new CD, “Spark Seeker.”

Well, no, he doesn’t, but “Tel Aviv’n” is such an accessible blast of L.A. cool coming after 10 tracks of self-help aphorisms that it’s easy to imagine the song being written by Brian Wilson — if Wilson were young and loose and, uh, Jewish.

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“Tel Aviv’n” is also the most religious and spiritual song on “Spark Seeker” despite its pop vibe, and it helps bridge Matisyahu’s transformation from Hasidic reggae superstar adorned in traditional dress and facial hair to the clean-shaven West Coast hip-hopper who will open for Sublime on Thursday, Aug. 16 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

“Spark Seeker” does contain snippets of Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as Middle Eastern instrumental flourishes, and Matisyahu still raps and rhymes in a Jamaican lilt — and suffers in comparison to guest rappers Shyne and Robo Rabbi.

He is backed by synths, sequencers, electronic drums and hip-hop beats, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given that, for his fourth studio album, he chose producer Kool Kojak (Nicki Minaj) to oversee the recording sessions in Los Angeles, New York and Israel.

The album kicks off with a bit of Hebrew before “Crossroads” shifts into hip-hop mode as the singer walks “through this Kingdom of time … only to find the other side is where the world opens wide.”

“Sunshine,” which, like other songs here, can be read both spiritually and secularly, calls for a champion to “soothe the soul of the land/ Mend the heart from the sea and the sand/ ‘til the sun comes up again.”

It also features the kind of anthemic chorus at which Matisyahu excels: “Reach for the sky/ Keep your eye on the prize/ Forever in my mind/ Be my golden sunshine.”

But several of these hooky choruses veer toward cringe-worthy, self-help aphorism, such as this from “Fire of Freedom”: “Keep on goin’ keep on rising/ Elevate your mind it’s all in the timing/ Light up the freedom flame.”

Then, on “Bal Shem Tov,” he sings: “Search heaven and the seven seas/ The answer lies inside you/ You know it won’t come easy/ You’ve got to find your own truth.”

(Why do lyrics such as these sound so much better over a reggae beat? Discuss.)

A salute to reggae legend Bob Marley comes on “Buffalo Soldier” — not Marley’s song — in which Matisyahu quotes Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” (“I shot the sheriff, the DA, and the deputy”) and gets political:

“Sorry Al Sharpton I don’t need you to lecture me/ Maybe I’ll stop talking about guns/ When you talk about the funds that they cut for the youth.”

By the penultimate song, Matisyahu is in a plane over the Mediterranean, heading for cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, conjuring up biblical scenes as well as images from Israel’s wars, riding in “a Jeep at twilight/ with my night vision on/ to find the song of my people till we hit the dawn.”

That song is the Shema, Judaism’s central prayer, the first line of which is recited in Hebrew, with subsequent lines paraphrased in:

“You could teach your children hatred/ teach them how to fight/ I’m a teach my children how to love/ with all of their might/ With all of your soul, all of your heart, all of your might.”

“Tel Aviv’n” not only links the old Matisyahu with the new, perhaps it shows the way for the second decade of his career.