Album review: Devendra Banhart - 'What Will We Be'
Cult star cleans up his look - and sound
The immediate effect is that ‘What Will We Be’ has a clarity its muddy predecessor, ‘Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon’, lacked. While that album seemed overwhelmed by Banhart’s grab-bag instrumentation, Butler, a graduate of the layer-it-thick-and-let-it-run school, arguably gives Banhart his most radio-friendly sound yet. His way with a vocal arrangement lifts tracks such as ‘Maria Leonza’ from simple Latin sashay to an ache-filled lament after the chicha’s run dry.
That’s not to say that, beneath his hippy persona and recent assertions that a tattoo of Miles Davis holding a white baby would better adorn his face than the beard, Devendra’s remained a disconnected lovable-wack-job caricature. Despite being the questionable doyen of “weird folk” for the best part of the ’00s, he’s been perversely happy to stray for pay and let his music enrapture a wider audience through the likes of Orange TV ads. But then, Banhart’s always had more of a gameplan than the image allowed: now managed by Neil Young (and one-time Dylan) gatekeeper Elliot Roberts, he’s pointedly moved from the so-indie-you’ll-miss it Young God to so-indie-it’s-major XL, and now makes his debut on
a major major, Warner Bros.
But to claim that the album marks the man pandering to an audience who’ll be picking it up in Sainsbury’s isn’t entirely fair. Unlike, say, Joanna Newsom, Banhart’s already as close as his ilk can be to becoming a household name; his work there is done. At just 28, these scrubbed-up shifts are more like an of-age musician putting on his Sunday best now he’s realised that respectability is just as virtuous as shit-kicking.
With the Indian-chief touchstones on ‘First Song For B’ and the expected folky strains on both its counterpart, ‘Last Song For B’, and ‘Angelika’, ‘What Will We Be’ begins like Devendra-by-rote. When the album turns on the mid-point axis of ‘Chin Chin & Muck Muck’, slinking in with an open-crotch panty jazz shuffle, however, a new band-galaxy explodes. Cooing from the perspective of an old lady (his true inner identity, as he’s explained in recent interviews), Banhart shifts into a Latino slowdrive before showtune exultations and then the sun-kissed exuberance of a new love break in. It’s at this point that the record opens out to where you sense Devendra and band are most comfortable.
Banhart’s vocal, in particular, relaxes without the po-faced pretence of the earlier songs, seeming much more sincere on ‘Maria Leonza’, asking, “Who do you love?/The love you can’t forget, or the lover you haven’t met?”. ‘16th & Valencia, Roxy Music’, meanwhile, crushes a Ronettes’ sensibility under its T.Rex stomp, while ‘Rats’ goes from The Doors to Led Zeppelin, Banhart tipping his headdress to both shaman-rock and overblown Valhalla mythmaking.
What Banhart gains with one hand, though, he loses with the other. Butler’s done well to harness the fuller ideas first explored on ‘Smokey…’ but, in doing so, has sacrified raw Devendra
for something just a bit too, well, Bees-y. Banhart would be the first to admit that lack of definable identity, in art as in old-lady-channelling life, is just his problem. Come closer ‘Foolin’’, though, with its nod to The Wailers’ ‘Jammin’’, you wonder whether re-envisioning himself as weird folk’s Bob Marley is perhaps an identity crisis too far.
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