Matthew Miller is the 24-year-old White Plains–raised former Phish adept who renamed himself Matisyahu. That was, of course, after embracing Orthodox Judaism and beginning to record and perform reggae.
His story consistently appears as just that, all improbable trans-cultural story. But few major-label debuts in recent memory have come with more visual force than Youth, the Pennsylvania native’s third album. On the CD cover, a hatless and lightly bespectacled Matisyahu stands, arms extended, in front of a doorway, his name block-lettered in urgent white. The vibe of the photograph and graphic design seems not religious; they work a mood of international consequence, as though the 1965 Michael Caine of The Ipcress File, all business and in weightier eyewear, might be, out of counter-espionage necessity, human-barricading that door.
Yet Youth is not informed by the romantic nostalgia of spy movies; rather, it floats a transparently sung seriousness that springs from Matisyahu’s faith. His beliefs equal a set of convictions, the atmospheric presence of which listeners are familiar with from Jamaican reggae, although their specifics are driven by a different system. This is the nuts-and-bolts basis of the Matisyahu story: The transference, within roughly the same pop music form, of one faith to another.
Matisyahu’s is not reggae classicism; his ambition, working mostly with producer Bill Laswell, is less formal. Laswell has explored the fine intersections of global localism, technological affect, and emotional chops for over 25 years; he is, Matisyahu understates, a music man with “a great sense.” On Youth—a release that clearly signals “proper album” after 2005’s Live at Stubb’s, which was commercially successful but stylistically scattered—Matisyahu’s beliefs and his reggae traditionalism fuse, then shape into another proposition entirely. He ends up offering an alternative to today’s often strictly enforced fun, one that is clear and slightly mysterious instead of received and repetitive. Another furrowed-brow singer-songwriter to counter perceived pop frivolity? Not Matisyahu on Youth: He seems to have too much else going on to worry about Burning Spear or Paris Hilton.
All of this, as much as Hasidic dress or preachments, puts Matisyahu’s durable tunes Somewhere Else. So he colors lovely interlocking phrases above lightened island beats in “Time of Your Song” (a kinetic non-Laswell track), quotes the Police in “Dispatch the Troops,” goes strongly righteous-campfire in “What I’m Fighting For,” and rocks it up on “Youth.” He is neither a great toaster nor a great singer. In the space between being neither, however, Matisyahu creates his own emotional mic.