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Devendra Banhart - What Will We Be

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Artist: Devendra Banhart

Album: What Will We Be

Label: Warner Brothers

Review date: Oct. 26, 2009

In 2002, Devendra Banhart burst like a match in the dark, shining luminously and all but impossible to ignore. His first collection, Oh Me Oh My..., was a bright set of recordings and a textbook case of great expectations. Without taking anything away from the songs themselves — and, no doubt, they were worthy on their own terms — it was the potential they harbored that impressed most. Listening to Banhart’s early work now is a bit like re-watching Dwayne Wade in the 2003 NCAA tournament, reading Rabbit, Run, or, I imagine, witnessing a rig’s drill crack a spray of crude oil against the sky. The power of the early Banhart songs was their premonition of what was to come, their revelation of the possibilities within him. It was the seductive promise of an artist on the ascent.

Skipping forward to the end of the decade, through the stark simplicity of Rejoicing in the Hands, the richer orchestrations Niño Rojo, and the increasingly divergent and tangential directions of Cripple Crow, we find Banhart at something of a crossroads. He has made it. His surname is an unnecessary appendage — say the word “Devendra,” and everyone in the room will know whom you’re talking about. Many who couldn’t tell the difference between Vetiver and Velveeta would recognize an image of Banhart’s hirsute face. (Dating a Hollywood starlet and looking slightly Manson-ish helps on that front.) And no man can perform off-center folk music without being referred to his example. For a physically slight person, Banhart casts a long shadow.

Yet, Banhart’s immanence has always been limited by the weirdness of his music and the size of his promotional arsenal. No more, though. Banhart jumped to a major label this year, and What Will We Be, his first recording on Warner/Reprise, marks the beginning of the end of his transition from Oh Me Oh My’s primitivism to mass culture’s sonic boom. The title What Will We Be suggests resignation, reluctance even, to this development. But its contents show a commitment to the cause, a final leap from the fringe to the fore.

The eccentric still lives to some extent. What Will We Be includes songs written from a child’s point of view about love and intimacy (“Chin Chin and Muck Muck”), silly lyrics set to seriously constructed tunes (“Willamdzi”), plastic pronunciation and wordplay (the insertion of additional syllables in the couplet “wild when/smiling” on “Can’t Help”), Spanish cooing (the moody “Brindo”), and, of course, warbling in that all-shook-up vibrato. But those moments have been seriously toned down in exchange for an approach that intends to register as classic but feels quite standard.

Take “Rats,” the barnburner in the album’s middle. Featuring a sleazy, almost flatulent blues guitar riff, “Rats” is a genuine attempt at mid-’70s cock rock and a departure from Banhart’s usual androgynous innuendo. The song works as a give-and-take between the chorus’s stoned chord progression and a recurring interlude that coasts on an upbeat, foamy bass line. But at its essence, “Rats” is a Zeppelin copy, a point that Banhart hammers home with his Plant-like falsetto shriek in the track’s final seconds.

Or consider “16th and Valencia,” Banhart’s take on contemporary dance-rock. The song isn’t totally objectionable, but it also wouldn’t be off the mark to say that it sounds like a Mitsubishi commercial or the next MGMT single. And then there’s the campfire reggae of “Foolin,’” a feel-good anthem in the spirit of Banhart’s earlier “Be Kind,” but without the same goofy charm. “Foolin’” is a gawky attempt to forge Banhart’s childlike innocence with his new aura of traveled professionalism. Awkward and flat, the song exposes Banhart in his mid-career maturation, clinging to what distinguished him as a young performer while stretching to grasp a broader, more accessible sound. In its inconsistency, “Foolin’” is What Will We Be’s most uncomfortable and telling moment.

Undoubtedly, those invested in the neo-folk community or independent purity will chafe at What Will We Be. People who treat the album as something between apostasy and run-of-the-mill selling out wouldn’t necessarily be wrong; there’s no denying that on What Will We Be, Banhart has moved up and out of his earlier niche. But for those of us not sworn to a scene, Banhart’s shift is not what matters; instead, the question is only whether his new approach is an improvement — or, at least, as consistently good — as his earlier work

The answer is that it probably isn’t. Aside from the average genre stabs, What Will We Be is a surprisingly sullen and ponderous album. Absent is Banhart’s mania, the zaniness that he always seemed barely able to contain. In its place are the slower pace and more deliberate delivery of “Meet Me at the Lookout” and the doubleheader “First and Last Songs for B.” Perhaps the deceleration could be taken as newfound thoughtfulness and consideration. But it equally suggests that Banhart has been saddled in his rising stardom. What it is that’s slowing him down — the pressures of appealing to a larger audience, reaching the inevitable creative plateau, different drugs, etc. — is unknown. But it’s undeniable that the quick boy is becoming a tired man.

By Ben Yaster

Other Reviews of Devendra Banhart

Oh Me Oh My… The Way The Day Goes By The Sun is Setting Dogs are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit

Rejoicing in the Hands

Niño Rojo

Cripple Crow

Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon

Read More

View all articles by Ben Yaster

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