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Asaf Avidan is a bona fide star in his native Israel. His three albums with former backing band The Mojos achieved platinum and gold sales and sold out concerts across Europe. In France and Italy, his solo albums have charted in the top five, and an unauthorised remix of The Mojos’ “Reckoning Song” went viral on YouTube, becoming so popular it forced an official release and subsequently topped the charts in 14 countries. He has performed alongside Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Robert Plant and Ben Harper, yet he is almost completely unknown in Australia.
Though this is Avidan’s sixth album, Gold Shadow feels like a new beginning. After releasing The Reckoning (2008), Poor Boy/Lucky Man (2009) and Through The Gale (2010) with the blues and roots Mojos, he embarked on a solo tour armed only with his acoustic guitar and a harmonica. The resulting live album presented mostly material that had been previously recorded, but the experience gave him the impetus to jettison his group.
Different Pulses, his first full-length solo album of new material, was created on the fly in a home studio, using samples and programmed instruments. It was a radical break from the rootsy sounds of his recent past, but as a songwriter he was only just beginning to stretch himself. On Gold Shadow he has blossomed into a mature artist willing to tackle a variety of musical genres, somehow kept unified through powerful vocals and the searching poetry of his lyrics.
Apart from all that, Gold Shadow is also one of the best-sounding records I have heard in a very long time. It’s sophisticated arrangements blend digital and natural instruments and the final mix is balanced exquisitely. Hi-fi buffs are in for a treat.
The album opens with “Over My Head”, a gorgeous paean to the redemptive power of love, a subject Avidan returns to often. The spare instrumentation brings to mind the economy of Stax Records and late-’60s Dylan. In fact, the chorus wouldn’t be out of place on Blonde On Blonde, Dylan’s 1966 masterpiece. Avidan’s song depicts a man damaged by past loves, whose trust and faith has been restored. This is a subject with great personal resonance for the songwriter – it was a love affair that caused him to become a songwriter in the first place.
Born in Jerusalem in 1980, Avidan is the son of Israeli diplomats and he spent some of his formative years in the United States and Jamaica. This well-travelled childhood, along with his father’s extensive collection of American jazz and soul records, led to Asaf being raised a fluent English speaker. As an adult, Avidan attended Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, where he studied animation. He relocated to Tel Aviv with his long-term girlfriend after graduating, to take up a job as an animator.
At this point, Avidan’s path in life appeared to be completely decided: a nice apartment in a sophisticated city, a girlfriend with whom he had just celebrated a sixth anniversary, and a good job in an exciting field. But all this certainty was shattered when his relationship suddenly ended. Feeling alienated and far from his Jerusalem friends, Tel Aviv became a cold, heartless place. His animation career felt like drudgery. Questioning everything about his life, the only solace Avidan could find was in music.
Until then, music had only been a hobby. Now it became a compulsion and his one source of relief. For the first time in his life, Avidan decided to write a song. He had to write a song. To try to capture the anguish he was feeling, he kept pushing the melody higher and higher until he was almost screaming as much as singing. More songs followed quickly and eventually he recorded and released them privately. Why did he let others hear these private torments? Was it for validation? Was he hoping she would hear them and give him another chance? Whatever his reasons, a six-song EP, Now That You’re Leaving, immediately attracted critical attention, as much for Asaf’s distinctive vocals as for his dark, poetic lyrics. To many he sounded like a cross between Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, enigmatic and androgynous. After the EP’s surprising success, Avidan took up music seriously, abandoning animation forever. He found his voice.
Apart from Joplin and Dylan, critics frequently mention Nina Simone, Robert Plant, Édith Piaf, Jeff Buckley, Billie Holiday and even Amy Winehouse. Avidan sounds like all, and none, of these. Asked by showbiz magazine The Hollywood Reporter if it irked him that people were just as likely to name female singers as male ones when describing his voice, he said it was “a huge compliment”. He continued: “I don’t get bothered if they think it’s a black woman, as long as the song moves them.”
The androgynous nature of Avidan’s vocals inevitably provokes questions of masculinity and identity. Does melody have a gender? Is it inherently more masculine to sing in basso profundo tones, like a musical Darth Vader, rather than falsetto, like Barry Gibb? This argument was settled centuries ago by the great composers of opera, in which some of the most masculine dramatic roles were sung by glorious high tenor voices. The thrilling final high notes of “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot are all the proof anyone needs that musical pitch and masculinity are completely unrelated. Beauty is neither masculine nor feminine, it is metaphysical.
It isn’t only as a singer that Avidan is able to hold his head up with other great artists; he is a formidable songwriter, too. On Gold Shadow his writing encompasses all manner of musical styles, from carnal blues (“Bang Bang”) to Parisian torch songs (“My Tunnels Are Long and Dark These Days”) to gypsy cabaret (“These Words You Want to Hear”). Just as one can hear echoes of other great vocalists in Avidan’s extraordinary, expressive voice, one can also sense their presence lurking unseen in his songwriting. The title track, “Gold Shadow”, sounds like something from a classic Nina Simone album, and listening to “A Part of This” you’d almost swear Shirley Bassey once sang it. These would be treacherous waters for most songwriters, but Avidan navigates them confidently, and with panache.
My favourite is “Little Parcels of an Endless Time”. Its knockout chorus features the soaring refrain, “Trepidation, you’ve got to be mistaken”, repeating it in a higher inversion to intensify the emotion. There’s even a trace of Bob Marley’s vibrato in the way Avidan sings “mistaken” – possibly an echo from his Jamaican sojourn. Avidan so often dazzles the listener with his vocal pyrotechnics and his deeply resonant lyrics that it is easy to overlook his inventive melodies and subtle chord structures. Like so much else he does, his purely musical skills are exceptional. I really can’t speak highly enough of his songcraft.
One undeniable influence on Avidan’s songwriting is that of Leonard Cohen. On one track in particular there is a near-perfect evocation of that writer’s trademark style: “The Labyrinth Song” is based on the Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, adapted as a metaphor for Avidan’s continuing struggle to escape his unhappy romantic past. The lyrics twist and turn like the confounding maze where Theseus confronted the Minotaur. This might be the best Leonard Cohen song not written by Leonard Cohen.
None of this is to suggest that we should only be interested in Avidan because he reminds us of other venerated artists, although it takes an exceptional talent to fly so close to these legends and not suffer in the comparison. A self-confessed “human sponge”, he indeed absorbs the best of what he observes. He has also likened the process of songwriting to surgery with blunt instruments, and it’s the surgeon in him that stitches everything to the private yearnings of his soul. In the process he creates art that is new and compelling, and his alone.
• THEATRE Away
Trinity Hall, Brisbane, until March 7
• DANCE Depth of Field
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, March 10-14
• THEATRE Suddenly Last Summer
Sydney Opera House, until March 21
• CINEMA Alliance Française French Film
Various cities, March 3 – April 21
• VISUAL ART Blinc
Elder Park, Adelaide, until March 15
• VISUAL ART The Golden Mirror Carousel
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 28, 2015 as "Gilt trip".
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