Devendra Banhart is striding along splendidly with his latest album, What Will We Be—this being his seventh studio release and follow up to the remarkable Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. While some tracks on the album, such as “Meet Me At Lookout Point,” are reminiscent of the four-track recordings featured on Banhart’s breakout Rejoicing in the Hands, most of What Will We Be continues to build on the foundation that was laid down on Smokey…. If that album was a psychedelic tour de force, then What Will We Be is its leaner, sharper companion piece.
An evocative record that’s distinguished mostly from its predecessors by its impeccable craftsmanship, What Will We Be exudes concentration from beginning to end, although it never succumbs to the rigid over-thinking of an artist with something to prove. Banhart just does what he does, and the output is raw and real. There are tracks on the album such as “Baby” that call out something familiar about all of pop music’s joyful sensibilities, underscoring the fact that Banhart’s music aims to conjure up the feeling of being unable to help yourself from smiling (just like the album’s opening track, “Can’t Help But Smiling” suggests). This unbridled commitment to purity is the exact life-juice that gives Banhart the moxie to rock a cotton-candy vamp of a number like “16th and Valencia, Roxy Music”—even if the track is a little too MGMT for my tastes—specifically because it comes so naturally to the California-cool, somewhat jester-like gypsy that is Banhart. Also still present are the unorthodox arrangements that have been a staple of Banhart’s music since the very beginning. “Rats” sounds like early Black Sabbath meshed with The Doors’ famous track, “The Soft Parade.” But What Will We Be’s best track, “Maria Lionza,” starts out with a haunting, echo-induced vocal, before making it’s way into a doo-wop tinged, Brasil ’66 impersonation—giving nod to Banhart’s Latin roots, which are also present on the gentle “Brindo.”
It’s becoming harder and harder for me to imagine a scenario in which Banhart releases an album that not only exceeds expectations, but renders them trivial in the wake of great mastery. Such is how this exceptional person has inspired me with his music, by giving me hope that he’s only just begun to scratch the surface in terms of his excellence.
In A Word: Craftsman
Banhart performs at Town Hall Sunday Nov. 22, Music Hall Of Williamsburg Monday Nov. 23 and Electric Factory (Philly) on Tuesday, Nov. 24.