While travelling last summer, I met a girl in Tel Aviv who, after a Spring of loss and ongoing grief, made me appreciate things that I had not thought an awful lot of prior. One of those things was related to music, as we soon set up a playlist for finding comfort in during the trials of a long-distance relationship. Feeling like I ought to add some local music to our little Spotify project, I shared the talent of Jeremy Perez from his ‘Rich Man’s World’ EP and, because I had recently seen him play an intimate set at the John Macintosh Hall, so too were the songs of Elie Massias added to the melodious soup that was our playlist. Miranda and I agreed that I had stumbled upon a gem.
2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Elie Massias’ ‘World in Fiction’. The album has an ethereal quality to it, perhaps owing to the stripped back instrumentation in some of the tracks or the elegant harmonies penned and performed by Massias. The songs vary in genre classification, with ‘Olive Mountain’ beginning by sounding like a folk song about love and spirituality, contrasting with the far more jazzier ‘5 Hours’ (the song itself is roughly 5 and a half minutes) prior to the track. Ambiguous too are the themes behind some songs, with lyrics ranging from the nostalgic sights of the Gibraltarian town to verging on the prophetic and abstract. The album, like love, feels whole, yet difficult to place your finger on what is causing that feeling. How Elie Massias can do that in 40 minutes – I am unsure.
We can begin to break it down by listening to the opening track, ‘The Passing’, where Elie is conscious to something ominous affecting a scene of tranquillity: “Evening falls/On this border town/Plagued with history/A vague future of uncertainty”. Prophetic perhaps, if Elie was referring to Brexit… but equally it could have been written at the time of heightened contraband and threats of direct rule over a 90s Gibraltar. The song though, is principally about bereavement: “Generous eyes/Innocent smiles/In a colonial house/They mourn an unexpected passing”. The song was taking me back to the time I lost my cousin Jamie and, Elie’s strong falsetto cries of a “distant haze” reminds me that I was unable to join my family in grieving in Gibraltar – for that lonely period, my home was a distant haze.
Dark days and nights at a UK university is something that many young Gibraltarians will sympathise with, as they will with the saga of love and travel that Elie embarks on with his following tracks on the album. ‘Susan’ is about a boy’s first forays into innocent, but unrequited love. It takes us through “Comedy Street” and “that old cafe where the ladies all drink their tea”. Susan’s sweater clinging to her thighs is reminiscent of an innocence and simplicity, as warm as the scene of Gibraltar that Elie paints: “Susan, where did you go?/You showed me an Eden then took it away”. He manages to answer Susan in the next track, ‘Sand Dunes’, which cuts a different tone musically and lyrically: “She does not know mankind”, he claims. But still there is a longing when we get to ‘Close To You’: “Let me glide through changing seasons/All this with you”. It is in ‘She’ where Elie finally identifies a mature love that opens one’s mind: “And through her eyes she comes to see/Thoughts of all my senseless realities” and “Simple things seem more colourful with each word/Bringing on images from a different world”.
It appears that we are back in Gibraltar for ‘5 Hours’, but with a profound observation: “Stripped and burnt, this lifeless monument/In contradiction to the seas that surround me”. Gibraltar is a rock through changing times. It is undoubtedly cosy and nostalgic, but unmoved and stuck. Home is caring but tired: “By the village the fishing boats have returned/The men wear hearty smiles/With eyes up to their knees”. Love is new and there to be explored somewhere far from the judgment of home because, in ‘Olive Mountain’, “Nobody will understand the bond between us”. It is time to embrace the freedom of love, even if it means leaving the beauty of your place of upbringing so “When the clouds clear up/We’ll run astray in the garden filled with loving” which recalls the talk of Eden in ‘Susan’.
The great escape commences in the final and title track in the shade of the world’s absurdity, as they are “Wading through a world in fiction/So far removed across the bay/Like Joe would say/So far removed, misunderstood”, heading to realise their love in the Promised Land, where I met mine. Not Jerusalem, but Tel Aviv; a city that is at once European and also Middle Eastern, simultaneously comfortably Mediterranean and other-worldly adventurous. Reminiscent of Gibraltar and perhaps Tarifa with its gorgeous sunsets, miles of golden beach, and diversity worthy of consistent boasting, summer in Tel Aviv was the ideal mix of home and abroad for me; perfect for love.
Massias, an orthodox Jew, fittingly uses Jerusalem as the destination of his escape, where simple things do seem more colourful. A destination, of course, with the paradox of indefatigable conflict and controversy, but also of steadiness and permanence, physically represented by the ancient Jerusalem stone that constitutes the old city. As the world saw last year when Jerusalem hit international mainstream headlines, nobody is indifferent to Jerusalem. And it was another Elie, Elie Wiesel, who alluded to the notion that the opposite of love is indifference… or The Lumineers who penned the line in their lyrics to ‘Stubborn Love’. It appears to be a similar paradox that governs a successful love, where there is a desire to escape, travel, and enjoy the several benefits of a romantic companionship, but equally a stubborn desire to roll with the clashes as any pair of individuals is bound to be confronted with.
The album then, by my interpretation at least, appears to see love as an elevation beyond the ‘real’; the heightening of sensual experience. Recognising existence for what it is, institutions for what they are, and transcending the limitations of the physical environment one happens to inhibit to fully appreciate the emancipated bond of a young couple in love. 20 years on, Elie Massias gets to the heart of the emotion that knows no time and ignores no place.