Matisyahu’s Live at Stubb’s could have easily been last year’s No. 1 novelty disc. But this converted Orthodox Hasid actually did sound as if he’d grown up on the streets of Jamaica, not in the New York suburbs, and the album’s dub-rooted grooves, while sometimes monotonous, did approximate the lean, hungry feel of vintage reggae. On Youth, this one-man mash-up understandably wants to prove he’s more than just a one-Talmud pony, yet the strain is as noticeable as his black hat. In the studio, the stark directness of Stubb’s is too often replaced with cluttered electro-reggae. It’s one thing to pen ”What I’m Fighting For,” a bargain-basement rewrite of Bob Marley’s ”Redemption Song.” It’s another to slip the chorus of Matthew Wilder’s cloying 1983 hit ”Break My Stride” into the otherwise severe ”Jerusalem” — the two songs mesh together a little too well.
Youth also tries to demonstrate the range of Matisyahu’s delivery, with similarly mannered results. He’s unquestionably skilled at aping a variety of styles: spewing hammy patois on ”Dispatch the Troops,” transforming into a dancehall motormouth on ”Fire of Heaven/Altar of Earth,” and crooning like a mellow Phish-loving fellow on the gooey love song ”Unique Is My Dove” and ”Late Night in Zion” (his assertion, or warning, that ”We’re not alone in the madness/ If we’re here then so are you”). But in spanning the vocal spectrum, Matisyahu could easily pass for a will-try-anything contestant on Jewish-American Idol.
What elevates Matisyahu above gimmick status is, of course, his lyrics, which resolutely reflect his religious conversion. In fact, outsiders may feel they need to have a copy of the Torah handy in order to grasp the many Zion references. His singsongy melodies, like that of ”Time of Your Song,” help offset his sermons. And the wailing wall of guitars on ”Youth” mightily compensates for Matisyahu’s stern admonition of those darn self-indulgent kids today. (Is he referring to the same Hacky Sackers who’ve become his fan base?) But that song’s unrelenting humorlessness is part of Matisyahu’s larger dilemma: trying to reconcile his strict beliefs with the joy and bliss that are intrinsic to reggae and jam-band rock — and which his own creations regularly lack.