Devendra Banhart is always a little too aware of what he is doing. Too often he writes songs with his super-curated fashion-hippie persona in mind. The results are songs that are often more knowingly clever than affecting, more of a high-minded wink and nod to the few in on his schtick than a genuine attempt to reach out with his work. It’s too bad, because when he strips down the artifice some—as he does most consistently on Nino Rojo—his music can be both infectious and moving.
And when it was first announced, Megapuss, Banhart’s full-band project with Greg Rogove and Fabrizio Moretti, looked like a way for him to step away from his persona. To really loosen up and lay back and goof around, instead of just building a careful image that implies those things. The result of this stepping-out on Surfing gives us a record that sounds every bit like a one-time affair by the band. An album full of silly songs that reveal no sort of long term ambitions for the group. It is, at least initially, a nice breath of fresh air.
Surfing works best when the band sets the jokes aside. When they sound like they’re having fun, rather than trying to be funny. Opener “Crop Circle Jerk ‘94”, despite having the goofiest name on the record, is one of the best songs. The wide-open echo of the guitar works well with Banhart’s warble and the song shuffles along with a relaxing, sun-soaked ease. “To the Love Within” might be repetitive and nonsensical, but its got a campfire sing-along feel that, though a tad schmaltzy, feels like what this project was supposed to be about in the first place: a charmingly loose collaboration between friends. In a similar way, the undulating sway of the title track is stretched out and euphoric and, along with the rollicking “Theme from Hollywood”, give off a thick layer of dudeness that cuts through the veneer of persona and gets at a more personal contentment, both for Banhart and the rest of the band.
These moments of guileless fun, however, are in the minority on Surfing. For each of those great moments, there are overworked joke songs that flat-out don’t work. And maybe part of their purpose is to be too goofy, to be easily dismissed, but that doesn’t excuse them from their fate as bad songs. Most are thickly composed, full of overwrought instrumentation to mask infantile or snarky lyrics. “Duck People Duck Man” has a carefully built, Spanish-touched folk background, but the spoken word verses speak of Trader Joe’s hummus. The classic psych-rock of “Hamman” is chock full of nostalgically twangy guitar riffs, but pines over pork products. The sock-hop slow-dance shuffle on “Chicken Titz” only exists as an excuse to cleverly croon the juvenile title over and over again.
And when the songs aren’t just out-and-out silly, they are hyper-knowing and cloyingly ironic. “Adam and Steve” could be light-hearted kook-pop, but instead Banhart and company use it to ape the saxophone riff from Wham’s “Careless Whisper”. “A Gun on His Hip and a Rose on His Chest” offers the opening line “Fuck the president/ in his asshole”, which is sung with too much of a smirk to make it controversial. The song then predictably substitutes police or Enron for the president as it repeats the same tired line.
Like much of the jokey stuff on Surfing, these songs are far more annoying than they are clever. And they don’t even begin to approach being funny. Because once again Banhart is stuck within the stiff constraints of his persona. The album comes off like it is supposed to sound loose, but it always feels very much under control and, more often than not, contrived. The best parts of this album show Banhart actually relaxing, actually having fun, giving something about himself—his actual self—away to us. But that must feel much more revealing than the album’s ridiculous cover art. Because Banhart always catches the small moments of honest feeling here, and defensively pulls back.
Like most of us, he finds it easier to hide behind a bad joke.
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