Devendra Banhart prefers the term “naturalismo” over the “freak-folk” label often attached to his music. But his guitar-anchored stoner musings really are folky, and his weirdly sexual outfits and makeup are definitely freaky, so for now let’s leave the genre’s name alone.
What Will We Be
Labels aside, it’s Banhart’s gently vibrating voice and soothing melodies that have always made him stand apart, and What Will We Be is clearly Devendra being Devendra. Each release has found him getting more accessible — no doubt his relationship with Natalie Portman got him some mainstream attention — but he’s managed to keep his unique Northern California hippie-ness intact, and the result mostly works.
“16th & Valencia Roxy Music” is the most fun track on What Will We Be. Above a refreshingly funky guitar pulse, Devendra sighs “I don’t know where to go / cause I know where to go / But I know where not to go / cause I know where to go.” Out of the confusion comes images of white horses and a beheaded king, and the self-aware line, “I know I look high / but I’m just free dancing.” It’s hippiedom minus the idealism — peace, love and happiness for the modern era.
This harder, more grounded sensibility shows itself in the driving quality of the music, too. It’s what sets the Devendra of What Will We Be apart from the harmless oddball who crooned, “Oh, Michigan, Michigan state / How I’d love to live in you / I’ve never been to Michigan state / Still I’d love to live in you,” on 2002’s Oh Me Oh My. Devendra’s lived a bit and learned a bit, and it sounds like he’s laid off the psychedelic drugs just a bit, too, for an overall more down-to-earth effect.
Still, Devendra is a free spirit at heart. Hinging on epic mood swings, two of the songs on What Will We Be completely switch directions midway through. On “Angelika,” a crooning love ballad gets cut off by a colorful Brazilian piano-and-drums romp, never to return. “Chin Chin & Muck Muck” starts off as a jazzy, trumpet-powered tune and is interrupted by a two-minute trippy and childlike ditty. This typical Banhart genre-melding complements his multilingual flair — plucky hymn “Walilamdzi” is written in a dying Native American language that adds significance. Raised partly in Venezuela, Devendra’s never afraid to bust out the odd Spanish love song — back-to-back tracks “Brindo” and “Maria Lionza” benefit from the quiet, prettily foreign sounds, but the songs are too similar considering the side-by-side ordering.
What Will We Be is hit-or-miss, and the misses are boring and meandering at best. “First Song For B” is nothing but an emo whine over dragging piano chords than (word of advice to rising musicians: never utter the line “Please destroy me” — and never, ever repeat it four times — if you want to be taken seriously). “Last Song For B” is slower and replaces the piano with guitar, but that’s about the only difference.
Devendra Banhart gets brownie points for having the balls to tackle hippie themes like love, life and trippy nothings in front of a widening audience on his latest album. He’s clearly comfortable with himself, and that’s fantastic. Most of What Will We Be is a lovely druggy frolic, but the overemotional ramblings are what earned him the playground moniker of “folk freak” in the first place. So if that bothers Devendra, then it’s time for him to rein it in.