Devendra Banhart‘s Flying Wig was produced by the experimental Welsh musician Cate LeBon. The sonic differences between this record and Banhart’s previous ones are clear from the start, thanks to her atmospheric contributions. Banhart’s earlier albums tended to walk the line between serious and silly. That made him cosmically interesting. If life is but a joke, how does one clap with just one hand?
LeBon has made Banhart’s spacey music more spacious by closing him in—the production cages in his vocals. There are edges and corners in the arrangements where there used to be curves. Banhart claims to be “alone, dancing naked” on the title track. However, the music itself is constrained. This lends itself to hearing Banhart in a directed, rational way as if following mental dance steps.
Consider Flying Wig‘s “Nun”, which begins with the protagonist in motion over a minimal piano and drum accompaniment. He feels like a “rat at the end of a trail”, presumably in the maze of life. The character is “running out of legs” and “runs away”. Le Bon encourages the song’s aural expansion. She purposely lets simple notes and phrases linger and overlap in complex ways to suggest there’s an order to the chaos. The quiet moments take on an added importance. They form what he calls the “desolate space” on another track that functions as the “infinite doubt” that keeps him from feeling free.
What does it all mean? Banhart and LeBon don’t know, but this existential question frames the music. Banhart has said Flying Wig was inspired by a famous Kobayashi Issa poem: “This dewdrop world / Is a dewdrop world / And yet / And yet.”
Banhart reads this as a “concise and clear illustration of hope”. He writes, “The ‘and yet, and yet’ is our ability to face despair with hope, to keep on failing and loving….”. Maybe. As a former university professor of English, I would interpret the verse differently (but not radically so). Banhart reads into it and sees what he is looking for. He openly admits he is melancholic by nature and finds the poem therapeutic. But Flying Wig doesn’t sound like a happy record despite his protest.
And yet, there are uplifting rhythms and sounds. On “May”, Banhart celebrates the Spring season over a bouncy beat. The album was recorded in a secluded wooded studio in Topanga Canyon in a studio once owned by Neil Young. Flying Wig has an outdoorsy feel despite relying on synthesizers and electronics. Tracks including “Sight Seer” and “Sirens” use the technology to express heartfelt sentiments. The sounds of “Sirens” are the opposite of alarmist; their violent expressions contrast with silence and comfort the protagonist.
Flying Wig‘s contributors should be familiar to Banhart and LaBon fans: Nicole Lawrence on pedal steel and guitar, Todd Dahlhoff on bass, Greg Rogove on drums, Euan Hinshelwood on saxophone, with Le Bon on synths, guitar, percussion, bass, and piano. These are familiar instruments, yet LeBon and company use them to transport the listener somewhere strange. Like the inanimate object from which the album gets its title, it’s just the context that makes it bizarre. A wig that lies there is just a wig. One that flies is strange. That’s true of this record as well.