Once upon a time a suburban teenager named Matthew, with a weakness for psychedelic drugs and the jam band Phish, sat on a rock in the Colorado wilderness and experienced the truth and goodness of God.
A few years later, thanks to sojourns in the Holy Land and the welcome of the Lubavitcher Jewish congregation, that burnt-out kid has become Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggaeman, whose hot streak has music execs in a tizzy and critics debating the usual question: Novelty, or pioneer?
''Youth," Matisyahu's third album, released today, suggests the answer is neither. Fast on the heels of ''Live at Stubb's," a hot seller in late 2005, it proves the26-year-old is no one-hit wonder. Bill Laswell, who has worked with an amazing roster of reggae, rock, and world artists, produces; his endorsement confirms that Matisyahu is to be taken seriously.
But a pioneer? A pale young man in the full beard and long coat of an Orthodox Jew singing reggae to a largely rock audience might briefly seem compelling. But the idea that Matisyahu is daringly taking reggae or Judaism to places they've never been dissipates upon hearing his lyrics, which are bereft of imagination and laced with self-improvement cliches.
''Got the freedom to choose, you better make the right move," he croons on the title track to a ''young man"; perhaps his religious strictures, which forbid him from stage-diving for fear of contact with females, also stop him from speaking to women. ''Youth is the engine of the world/Storm the halls of vanity, focus your energy" -- the imprecations go on for 13 tracks and one remix.
''Youth" might be refreshing, even inspiring, if Matisyahu's delivery made up for his material. But his voice is reedy and strained, and his accent shifts from Caribbean to Hebrew to generic American with no discernible connection to the songs.
The band wanders out of reggae syncopation into rock with a similar lack of purpose. It feels like a preppy band that got through college on drugs and audience indulgence before finding religion. Matisyahu's faith is his business, but comparisons to the spirituality of a Bob Marley -- one magazine, hopefully in jest, quizzes readers to distinguish between the lyrics of the two -- are a wee bit premature.