Youth may not be Matisyahu's second album, but it's still a sophomore slump.
Behold the sophomore slump. Cherish it. Embrace it. Remember the past; look to the future. Youth is Matisyahu's third full-length release, but only his second studio record (Shake off the Dust...Arise came in 2004) and his second album to receive any sort of attention (Live at Stubb's introduced the "Hasidic reggae superstar" to the world). Plus, Youth just sounds like a sophomore album. You can hear the growing pains -- the muscles stretching, the bones creaking, the soul in angst as it tests and forges an identity.
"Fire of Heaven/Altar of Earth" is what Youth strives to be -- a faultless fusion of Matisyahu rapping and singing, preaching and praising: of reggae and hip-hop; of studio and stage; of young and old; of dancefloor liaisons and righteous piety. Youth knows what it wants to be, but Matisyahu and his band Roots Tonic haven't led it there. Instead they've arrived at a plane of shattered glass, a reflection refracted in myriad directions. Taken as individual visions, most of Youth's 13 songs succeed in one way or another. The title track delivers a strong lyrical message with disjointed, yet equally bold music to back it up. "Young man -- the power's in your hand / Slam your fist on the table and make your demand / You gotta make the right move", pronounces Matisyahu in the chorus. "Jerusalem" is a dancehall track that best exemplifies Matisyahu's style -- clean, catchy, and spiritual. His fiery vocals roll over a slick beat straight from the Neptunes' notebook.
But stepping back from Youth reveals a spectrum of shards swept into a pile. Matisyahu seems to trying to do too much, to arrange too many ideas. Too much attention has been given to making songs, and too little to making an album. The acoustic guitar ballad "What I'm Fighting For" doesn't gel with MC Stan Ipcus's rap cameo in "WP", which in turn frustrates the mellow ruminations of "Late Night in Zion". These are not bad ideas in and of themselves, but jumbled together in poor sequence they amount to little more than the playlist of an iPod Shuffle.
Youth's error is corrected by its limited-edition counterpart Youth Dub, which keeps a tight focus across Matisyahu's musical and lyrical themes. These dub versions of songs from throughout Matisyahu's career range from good to excellent, but what really sells the collection is its dedication to one idea. That's part of what made Matisyahu great, initially, especially on Stubb's, and it's what is sorely lacking from Youth. It's not that Matisyahu should be painted into a corner -- he clearly doesn't want that to happen, and neither do we -- but there's a difference between variety and sprawl, between trying new things and throwing them all up against a wall to see what sticks. When viewed through a dub lens, Youth's new approaches don't sound so divergent; rather, more like different ways of viewing the same thing, which, when repeated across an entire record, can be a sure formula for success.
Youth doesn't rival either of Matisyahu's previous releases. But it does present some of his most intriguing studio recordings yet, aided considerably by Bill Laswell's deft electronic touches. Most importantly, Youth proves that Matisyahu is no gimmick. He's a dedicated artist facing the same struggles as any from the secular world. Along with Youth Dub, this is plenty to tide us over until next time.