A Roots Music Sacrifice: A Review of Matisyahu's Akeda

Netanel Miles-Yépez

In the world of reggae, there is "roots music" and "dancehall music." Dancehall music is like it sounds, popular music to get you up and dance. No message necessary. Whereas roots music digs into the life of the artist—revealing troubles and spiritual trials—and occasionally delivers a message of hope and inspiration. Matisyahu, the Jewish singer-songwriter, who first achieved notoriety as a Hasidic reggae artist with a hip-hop style and inspiring Jewish lyrics, is generally known for both. And though he has long since shed his exclusively Hasidic reggae identity, he has continued to make what is essentially great dancehall music with an underlying message—that is, until now.

Matisyahu's new album, Akeda, is almost pure roots music, with a little dancehall sprinkled in the mix. It's the kind of album you put on when you need to get away, or shut the bedroom door and just kick-back, soaking in the music. If his previous album, Spark Seeker, was like a joyful leap into the mosh-pit at Red Rocks on a sunny day, Akeda is all on the ground, like a slow walk through lonely streets in the early morning or at night, letting one's thoughts churn with every step. It is music that comes from the inside-out, and that somehow makes you feel cleansed in the listening.

In all of his studio albums, Matisyahu has made a hallmark of daring creativity, and has demonstrated a unique ability to integrate diverse musical influences into his sound. He never plays it safe. Every album is a new musicaland spiritual—exploration; and because of this, he has sometimes disappointed his more genre-oriented fans who tend to pine over the "good-old-days" when he seemed to be a reggae super-star and Jewish icon. But no true artist can live in a box, any more than every fan of one period in an artist's life can follow them into the next. In the end, the artist creates for those who can hear the deeper melody, changing and evolving through each period, the same melody that haunts them and has to be delivered from within.

Akeda is the kind of album an artist makes when there is no other creative choice but to turn oneself inside-out, to scrape the insides and reveal everything raw. Past albums begin to feel like masks and a burden; successful collaborations with great producers—with their own vision for the music—begin to hang like a weight around an artist's neck. Something inside chafes at all the little incursions into the music, at the add-ons that sometimes work . . . and sometimes don't. In the end, there is no choice but to take back control and look for the original purity amid all the static. This impulse is what makes Akeda Matisyahu's most self-reflective and purely conceived album.

Like Marvin Gaye's radically experimental What's Going On in 1971, Akeda breaks all the conventional rules and reveals the musician behind the recording artist. A musician's musician, Matisyahu often seems to be singing in a backroom jam session with friends, or in some small, smoky venue trying to get a tiny crowd into a groove he's feeling in the moment. Many songs on Akeda have a quality reminiscent of those many great Bob Marley songs that get lost amid the anthems and "greatest hits." Matisyahu respects the music and isn't afraid to let a song find its own way. Not enslaved to catchy hooks and refrains, many songs on Akeda grow and open-out organically in new and unexpected ways; like life, they walk and fall down and get back up, and sometimes find that they can soar. There is also a driving, soulful undertone in them, delivered with a light touch and an obvious delight in letting the music be what it wants to be—regardless of fan expectations.

Paralleling the best music of the 1970s (and occasionally the 80s), Akeda is an album with easy, ambling rhythms, soulful and searching lyrics, and oddly playful effects—horns jumping in at unexpected moments to lighten the mood—totally renewing and reinvigorating that great sound from the past. The first track, "Reservoir," is the perfect tone-setter for the album, with its Dylan-esque walk through a host of edgy, painful emotions, full of fight and building to its own defiant brand of gratitude. Then, in "Watch the Walls Melt Down," a contrastingly meditative and triumphant song, Matisyahu achieves another brilliant musical fusion, created from equally complex emotions—watching your life fall apart, almost urging its destruction so you can start rebuilding. Struggles with inner demons and loneliness compete with an equally strong determination to love and rise from the ashes in many songs, like "Obstacles" and "Hard Way" (a personal favorite on the album). These themes are not new to Akeda, of course, but take on a much more personal and poignant tone in it. And yet, even as the album heads into new places musically, and in terms of its contemplative depth, it is still built on the foundation of Matisyahu's previous work and early influences. For those fans who missed his reggae sound in Spark Seeker, it makes a powerful return in Akeda. Indeed, the new song, "Black Heart" may be the most mature feeling reggae in the Matisyahu catalogue, having all the makings of a reggae classic. Likewise, the uplifting anthem "Champion" will delight as much as the questioning and reflective, "Confidence," with its easy reggae pop and beat.

But underneath all the externals of style, feeding this very personal "roots album," is the idea of sacrifice. In the Jewish tradition, akeda is a reference to the "binding" of Isaac on the rock of sacrifice—bound by his father, Abraham, in accordance with God's command. But unlike Judaism's traditional emphasis on Abraham's great faith and the reward for that faith, Matisyahu's Akeda is an exploration of the great "toll" such acts of faith take on one's life. Whether one is called to be an artist or a spiritual servant like Abraham, whether one is driven to follow the demanding call of one's muse or one's God, there is no promise of perfect happiness, no perfect life for the servant of the call—even if one is successful in following it. After all, what happened to Abraham's relationship to his son and his wife after the akeda? Some Jewish traditions tell of tragedy in the aftermath. Perhaps that is what was really sacrificed in his following God's command. Often, we do what we must, driven by the call from within; but it isn't always pretty. Matisyahu's Akeda is ultimately a Kierkegaardian contemplation on the aftermath of this act of faith, of answering the divine call, ayeka?—"Where are you?"—and how it is possible to find solace, and even a sense of wholeness amid the brokenness of the sacrifice.

Matisyahu’s “Akeda”

By Netanel Miles-Yépez

The Grammy Award nominated artist, Matisyahu, has come a long way since 2005 when he released his breakout album Live at Stubb’s (which reached #1 on the Reggae Albums Chart and #30 on the Billboard 200). Since then he has proven to be one of the most dynamic and creative artists in the industry today, breaking with convention at every turn and remaking his musical image with nearly every album. And his latest—Akeda (Uh-kay-duh)—is no different in this regard.

What is different is Akeda’s depth and naturalness; it is by far Matisyahu’s most personal album, and the one over which he has had the most creative control. Comparable to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic, What’s Going On, “Akeda is the kind of album an artist makes when there is no other creative choice but to turn oneself inside-out, to scrape the insides and reveal everything raw.” . . .  “Akeda breaks all the conventional rules and reveals the musician behind the recording artist.”

Though he achieved early success as a “Hasidic reggae super-star,” Matisyahu—the man and the musician—soon began to chafe under the constraints of that label and the projections that went with it. The music was continuing to evolve, and so was his spiritual identity. Reggae was just one strong influence in the sound he was seeking; and the mystical teachings of Hasidism had soaked-in to a degree that he felt the external trappings were no longer necessary. As he says on the new album, “Got it on the inside, don’t need to wear it out.”

By the release of Spark Seeker in 2012, Matisyahu’s appearance and sound had changed drastically from the days of his first success. And though his music was more successful than ever, having an even broader, multi-influence, cross-genre appeal, the backlash from his early reggae-oriented fans, and those who saw him as a “bearded Jewish icon” was overwhelming and deeply painful to him. The pressures of success and constant touring, coupled with this onslaught of superficial criticism, drove the singer into the intense feelings of isolation and introspection that eventually resulted in Akeda, his most “self-reflective and purely conceived album” to date.

Written on tour, and in his Los Angeles home, Akeda was recorded in Brooklyn’s Studio G with his touring band, Dub Trio (Dave Holmes, Stu Brooks, and Joe Tomino), and was personally produced by Matisyahu and bassist, Stu Brooks (with assists from Studio G owner, Joel Hamilton, and Dave Holmes). Matisyahu also worked on a number of tracks with long time friends and collaborators, Aaron Dugan, Rob Marcher and Mark Guilana.

When asked about the writing and recording process for Akeda, Matisyahu says: “On this record, I really just wrote from my guts. I wanted everything to come from the inside . . . I didn’t want to make any compromises with the music or the recording process. It was all done at my place, or at Studio G with my bass player, Stu Brooks, who produced the record. Our musical tastes are so similar, and we’ve been working together so long, there was no need to go out looking for the ‘right producer’ or the ‘right beat’ . . . Everything just came to us, and it was always right on the money.”

The result of this collaboration is a wide-ranging, radically experimental album that adds a new layer of sophistication to Matisyahu’s oeuvre. While in past albums, Matisyahu’s songs and lyrics were often drawn from inspiring themes and teachings in Hasidic Judaism; in Akeda, the lyrics are far more personal and Hasidic ideas play a smaller, supporting role. “They’re definitely in there,” says Matisyahu, “but they’re a lot more integrated than before. In some ways, I think I used to disguise myself behind them. But on this album, I was able to step into the world more, to come out from behind the glass and write more emotional songs, dealing with the real events and people in my life. And when I did this, I found that all the Hasidic and kabbalistic ideas I’ve studied for years came up naturally and were able to enter into my real life.” 

This is clear throughout the album, especially in intensely personal songs like “Reservoir.” In talking about this song, Matisyahu says: “In that song, I’m really dealing with the pain I felt—and continue to feel—from my ‘brothers’ who were so quick to throw me under the bus because of my changes. As usual, I make a lot of references to stories and motifs from Torah; only now, they are more internalized and deeply personal. The title, ‘Reservoir,’ refers to the reservoir in Central Park that I’ve found myself walking around at different times in my life. One day, it occurred to me that I’d never gone all the way around it, never completed the circle. It made me realize how much I wanted closure and a sense of completeness in my life.”

Another important song for Matisyahu is “Broken Car,” which sets up a theme found throughout the album. “This is really a song about refuge,” says Matisyahu, “about finding a home in the world; it’s about acceptance of oneself and others—with all the problems and flaws. It comes from the sense of profound ‘brokenness’ I’ve experienced in my own life over the past few years, which I’ve come to look at without judgment, with a kind of acceptance, patience and love. At this point, I just want to be grateful to God for the blessing of being able to continue growing and doing what I can to create a place of healing in this broken world.”

This, of course, brings us to Akeda, the album’s title. Akeda (‘binding’) is a Hebrew word that refers to sacrifice, or rather the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham in the Bible at God’s command. But for Matisyahu, it is also a powerful symbol for the “toll” such acts of faith take on one’s life—even for a musician following his own heart and musical instincts. The success of “following the muse” brings its own problems, forcing an artist to look deep inside for the original purity that gave life to the music in the first place. This is the theme that shapes Akeda; for the songs on this new album deal with the intense loneliness and isolation of life on the road, processing complex feelings of betrayal from former friends and fans, as well the breakdown of longstanding relationships. But far from wallowing in these feelings and trials, the songs on Akeda deal with them, exploring them in the depths, and finally find their way back to the surface, where they achieve a kind of wholeness amid the brokenness of the sacrifice. In the end, “It is music that comes from the inside-out, and that somehow makes you feel cleansed in the listening.”*

* Some quotes are taken from my upcoming album review, “A Roots Music Sacrifice: A Review of Matisyahu’s Akeda.” Huffington Post.