[11 September 2005]
New words are needed to describe Devendra Banhart. “Enchanting” almost does it and “transcendental” comes close too. Still neither term can quite define an artist as out of step as he is in tune with his age and era. Like Bob Dylan and David Bowie before him, Banhart is onto something inspiringly idiosyncratic and instantaneously infectious. He is making music that demands not only to be heard but also to be heeded and held dear.
Cripple Crow is Banhart’s fourth full-length album in under three years but the first that feels fully realized. More of a demo than a debut, Oh Me Oh My… was curated by Young God Records’ indomitably estimable Michael Gira and introduced intrepid listeners to a world as unusual and unwieldily as the album’s title. Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo followed with both records culled from the same sessions and overseen again by Gira. While making great strides in arrangements and accessibility, these albums still shared the same sense of understated intimacy associated with Gira’s own most recent work. Now onto a new label and independent of his mentor, Banhart metamorphizes again and emerges as entirely his own artist. This aesthetic autonomy establishes itself across an album that is all at once hip-shaking, high-brow, heartfelt, hallowed, and a hell of a good time.
The most immediately striking change is how much more confidence Banhart exudes all over Cripple Crow. The shrill trilling of his early work that then evolved into a precious fragility has now amassed resonant depth. Much more Nick Drake than Holy Modal Rounders, Banhart’s swooning croon hangs heavy with musky sexuality on “Now That I Know” and “I Do Dig a Certain Girl”. Still he manages to get giggling giddy on “The Beatles” and cabaret campy on “Some People Ride the Wave”. His vocal range even goes so far as to invoke the Steve Miller Band with a few spaced-out hoots injected into the ragged rocker “Long Haired Child”.
This newfound sense of swagger and all around dexterity is complemented by increasingly elaborate arrangements. While the album begins with an expectedly minimal degree of accompaniment, the record soon enough involves an entire band breaking out into rock and roll barnburners. From the smoldering, slow-burn intensity of languorous susurrations to boot-stomping roots rock, Banhart spirits over, in, and through an impressive range of varied tones and tempos held cohesive by timbre and texture. Earthy warmth all wrapped up in gauzy glow emanates from all 22 tracks. More alive and animated than ever, Banhart sounds like nothing less than the zeitgeist he has become for the burgeoning freak-folk scene.
That expansiveness of voice and song extends to more intangible aspects of the record as well. Cripple Crow is flooded with love and a thrilling sense of wonder. The entire album aches with ephemeral beauty and the hope of its transcendent grace. Such an overwhelming emphasis on optimism is a welcome whisper of dark-dispelling prayer in these dim days for progressive thought.
Just as inspiring is Banhart’s ongoing investment in the efficacy of community. Banhart has always been an outspoken advocate of likeminded artists. Compiling the Golden Apples of the Sun compilation for the arts journal Arthur, he helped shape the definitive freak-folk document. That proclivity continues on into Cripple Crow with featured guests and even a special mention for fellow Golden Apples alumni Six Organs of Admittance.
Esoteric as they seem it’s these most abstract qualities that make Cripple Crow and Banhart himself so timely. Sustained by numerous images of children and childhood, the record is a celebration of hope and joy. Still it is simplicity that Banhart advocates and not immaturity. Hardly an exercise in mere escapism, he confronts his troubles without allowing them to take a toll on his happiness. Even amidst the bang and boogie of “I Feel Just Like a Child” he notes how his boisterous innocence conflicts with current events by exclaiming he needs someone to “please explain the war”. Addressing his opposition more directly in “Heard Somebody Say”, he elaborates “here’s what we believe / it’s simple / we don’t want to kill”.
What’s so stunning about all this is not just that these songs stand out apart from the dearth of protest tunes in these dire times, but that Banhart makes his criticisms within the larger context of affirming life and its endless potential for beauty. That refusal to give up hope or give into despair is an incredibly inspiring alternative to the other and all too common options of despairing despondency or fuck-it-all retreats into desperate revelry. His optimism and emphasis on collective support is a much needed reminder that the kids are indeed alright. Even when the world fails us, we can still do what we want to do when we do it ourselves.