[25 October 2009]
Though it wasn’t that well-received by the critics, I quite enjoyed Devendra Banhart’s last album. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon found the singer in jovial good form—from the goofy comedics of “Shabop Shalom” to the Charolastra-worthy “Seahorse”, the album had a slacker optimism that was difficult to hate. And despite not being quite as ambitious as his earlier Cripple Crow, or as goodnaturedly warped as his breakout Rejoicing in the Hands. But Banhart’s been around now for seven years, and is now seven albums in. So it’s no longer a matter of proving anything; and Banhart himself has shown a nonchalant disregard for convention, which has made following his various appetites consistently interesting.
But long-time followers of the musician may not have expected what happened last year, when the singer signed with a major label. What Will We Be may be his Warner debut, but just as his fans hoped, Banhart proves to be largely un-major-label-able. Basically, he’s taken the Warner funding and recorded an album—with the same musicians as for Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon—in a remote cottage somewhere in California’s hills. It’s not surprising that What Will We Be sounds, then, like a relaxed, slightly crisper take on the ideas that informed his previous release. This haze of lazy Tropicalia, occasionally interrupted by an indulged moment of proggy vamp, isn’t necessarily a compromise. It really depends on whether you think that the previous, kooky persona Banhart cultivated was a put-on or whether that was his true aesthetic. If the former, you’ll welcome this more straightforward material. If, however, you quite enjoyed that hardcore oddball outlook, he’s moving further and further away.
It’s reflected on What Will We Be even in the way Banhart sings. He’s smoothed out the wicked warble into something softer, lighter and more conventional. He’ll descend to a guttural growl now and then, but on shuffling songs like “Brindo”, it’s all a sweet whisper. More difficult to come to terms with than this change, though, is the sneaking suspicion that this album lacks just about any vivacity at all. It’s languid to the point of fading away completely—with just a few exceptions. These exceptions are, unsurprisingly, highlights of the album.
The finale, feel-good anthem “Foolin’”, will have you singing along “one day at a time”. “Baby”, an early single from the collection, has the same innocent delight, with its soulful refrain of “I want you babe”. And a pair of songs in the middle of the album prove Banhart’s still got his old songwriting chops. I’ll leave a description of the epic centerpiece “Chin Chin & Muck Muck” to someone else; needless to say, it’s multi-sectioned, hulking, and captivating. “16th & Valencia”, which follows it, may be the closest What Will We Be will come to a radio hit, with its hoisted chorus, “tonight, we ain’t gonna find our lovers”.
But throughout, the languor and the accompanying muddy, slightly fuller orchestrations don’t help lighten an oppressive mood. Though undeniably beautiful, there is a sense of the sodden to these songs. “Meet Me at the Lookout”, reliant on Banhart’s a cappella and static, echoing repetitions of the same chord, stews in place without going anywhere. Similarly, “Goin’ to the Place” offers atmosphere without direction. Nowhere is there the mischievous pep of “Little Yellow Spider” or “At the Hop”. And even though there’s no denying Banhart’s become an accomplished, confident songwriter who follows his muse without a care for propriety or convention, we won’t always be following, lap-dog like, in his wake. Sooner or later, he’ll have to give us something fresh and exciting. Or we’ll lose interest.