First Listen – Devendra Banhart, ‘What Will We Be’

So… surely buying your hippy-souled surrealistic freak-folk from a major label is a bit like buying organic veg from Tesco? Two years since ‘Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon’, one-time New York/Venezuelan prince of antifolk Devendra Banhart has signed himself over to Mr Warner and his brother.

The plusher surroundings (well, actually, he took the cash, hired the same backing cast as for ‘Smokey…’ and set up a studio in a house in northern California) seem to suit him rather well, actually. There’s not a massive leap in production values, no massive radio hits, no sound of soul-selling to be heard. There is, though, a more confident, mature and yes, slightly more conventional-sounding Banhart, revelling comfortably in new sounds.

1) ‘Can’t Help But Smiling’
It’s immediately clear we’re in a very different headspace from the troubled, post-break-up psych-folk of ‘Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon’, with a beatifically laidback, Fred Neil, ‘Everybody’s Talkin” kind of vibe, Devendra musing “It’s so nice to think you’re alone/And to look up and see you home“. His voice sounds less fey and ironic, rougher-edged than before, more confident.

2) ‘Angelika’
There’s a very ’70s acoustic-folk feel to this one, in a Cat Stevens kind of way, soft and delicate but worldly rather than ethereal, his vocals warm but made somewhat distant by use of a radio mic. Towards the end it suddenly shifts tempo and genre into a tropicalia shuffle oddly reminiscent of ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’. The Tropicalia influence of Caetano Veloso that was coming through on ‘Smokey…’ is even stronger here.

3) ‘Baby’
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The gently shuffling, slightly funky Motown rhythm gives this song a mischievous feel that brings latterday Beck to mind, and the lyrics convey a sense of confident contentment. “Baby, I finally figured out what I’m after/I’m learning to let in all the laughter“, croons Banhart, and certainly this album feels a lot more relaxed, less try-hard and ‘kooky’ than anything he’s done before.

Here’s a live version…

4) ‘Goin’ Back’
Though the title seems to reference The Byrds, again this song seems to reference less the reverential side of folk that Fleet Foxes do so well and more the everyman tone and subtle sophistication of Cat Stevens or even Don McLean. There’s still a spiritual (god, I hate that word) aspect, but gently, unforcedly so.

5) ‘First Song For B’
A very soft, slightly spooky piano number, that sounds a little Thom Yorke-ish. “Now I take everything as a good sign, because I’m in love/Now I take everything as a sign from god”, keens Devendra, blissfully, but its clear there’s a darker side to this seeming bliss as a refrain of “please destroy me” closes the song. Could ‘B’ be Bianca Casady of Coco Rosie, the ex-girlfriend who inspired much of the heartbreak on his last album? We wouldn’t be so crass as to speculate.

6 ) ‘Last Song For B’
Another frail, spare piece, this one recalling Bjork in its pure focus on very quiet, controlled vocal, and the sparest of guitar, a vision of “this lifetime as lovers for all time”.

7) ‘Chin Chin & Muck Muck’
Bloody hell. Talk about epic centrepieces. You know those torrents of roses and ribbons you get in the centre of tables at tacky weddings? Well, this is sort of like that but made of music and good.

With three distinct sections skipping across genres, it’s a strange, chimeric thing, starting out as crooner jazz in a Rufus Wainwright style, Banhart returning to the perverse/naive balance between knowing and innocent that often used to characterise his lyrics as he sings “When I was a young boy/I had a lot of young boys/And we taught each other dearly how to love“.

It then morphs into a glammy tropicalia, with a surrealistic, nightmarish lyrical meandering (“all my thoughts are hairs on a wild boar” he muses, which, if it were true, would explain the crazed way his mind is charging around). There’s musings on mortality too: “I hung the hangman and I’m not afraid to fight/But he’s gonna get me, he won’t forget me“.

Then it’s all change again into an irony-laden, Sinatra-esque showtune that recalls the work of fellow antifolk prince Adam Green, Banhart exclaiming hammily “I do declare/This might be the start of a new affair/I’m gonna braid exotic birds in your hair.” It’s the ‘wackiest’ lyrical moment on the album, but his arch delivery means it steers clear of the tweeness he could sometimes be guilty of in the past.

And here’s another live rendition…

8) ’16th And Valencia, Roxy Music’
Living up to its name, this has all the suave tension of ‘Love Is The Drug’, but where Bryan Ferry staked his place confidently at the singles bar, we find Devendra and chums moaning “We don’t know where to go/We don’t know what to do“. The fluid, sexy, glammy guitar again reminds you of Beck’s tropicalia experiments.

9) ‘Rats’
An extremely dark and psychy track with a 13th Floor Elevators attitude and a lazy, Black Mountain stoned-ness. Really unlike anything you’ve heard from him before, it finds Banhart playing the Jim Morrison-esque shaman rocker: “I am the dark, you are the thunder/I am the doubt, you are the wonder”. Halfway though, it suddently switches into a bluesy country rock, before subsiding back to that sultry slowness.

Have a look how it sounds live…

10) ‘Maria Leonza’
A strange, dreamlike trip, a bit Byrds-y, hippyish in the truest sense with pipes, softly shambling rhythms. “This is a moment without any meaning…. Love is the only thing truly worth breathing…” Yeah, man. Heavy.

11) ‘Brindo’
Starts with only bass and Banhart’s echoing hum, a playful, delicate Latin lullaby, decorated with shakers and tip-toeing piano.

12) ‘Meet Me At Lookout Point’
Another gentle, Spanish-guitar led dreamy piece, lulling you into a sunnily stoned world of langour and easiness. It’s reminiscent of Grizzly Bear or Deerhunter at their dreamiest, with harps and heavenly harmonies flitting around your head like drowsy bees.

13) ‘Walilamdzi’
A laid back Appalachian kind of feel, with some sweeeet fingerpicking – a hint of Crosby Stills And Nash, but again, a lot less ethereal than most of the new folkers, and there’s something deliciously warm and secure about the chord changes.

14) ‘Foolin’
Somewhere between Tropicalia and cod-reggae, this somehow manages to say on the right side of silly. It feels warm and fuzzy like The Bees or Fab Moretti’s Little Joy. It’s a sunny, positive note to end the album on. “Love is the birth of a nation, born from the good womb of humankind” Well, that’s alright then. Everything’s going to be OK, everyone!