Rejoicing in the Hands

Nashville Scene | by Dave Maddox

Visionary psychedelia

Two years ago, Devendra Banhart emerged as an underground phenomenon, receiving critical attention for his homemade recording Oh Me Oh My. Rather than clinging to his outsider status, his new album, Rejoicing in the Hands, finds him moving more toward becoming an established artist. The tape wobble, hissing, mic bumps and background noises of his no-budget recording have been replaced by a clearer sound. Repetitive figures that bordered on ranting have given way to more developed melody lines. Whereas the first recording used only Banhart's guitar and voice, the new one features other musicians (although Banhart's playing remains a focal point). On Oh Me Oh My, his voice had a harsh quality that bordered on screaming. That edge is off now.
Rejoicing in the Hands exudes a hopeful view of life in which people enjoy unity with the world through their concrete relationships with friends and lovers, all of it vitiated by beneficent spiritual forces. In the opening track, "This Is the Way" (the title sounds distressingly like something for sale at LifeWay Christian Stores), Banhart sings, "This is the sound that swims inside me / That circle sound is what surrounds me. Well, we've known, we've known / We have a choice, we chose rejoice." These lines have a religious dimension, and several other songs include the figure of an empress who corresponds to the sun and to metaphysical forces.
Banhart's lyrics aim for visionary psychedelia akin to that of the Beat Poets, and he achieves some startling images. "Her one long red nail that shoots from her toe is tickling my blood and shifting its flow," he sings in "Insect Eyes." Elsewhere, he shows a poet's economy, adding words a few at a time to build meaning and change what went before. In the line, "My flesh sings out / It sings, 'Come put me out' " (from "The Body Breaks"), he repeats some words but shifts functions and context to complete the thought and keep the line moving forward. Lest this poetic ambition and religious content get too pretentious, there is Banhart's voice, which sounds at times like the comedian Adam Sandler singing. Inherently ridiculous, Banhart's nasal voice brings his sentiments down to earth, aligning them with messy lives that likewise border on the ridiculous.
Banhart's songwriting demonstrates new qualities this time around. The melodies have less internal repetition, and the songs have more complex structures. They also reveal their stylistic roots more clearly: Folk and folk rock, for sure, but also old-time jazz and blues, as well as orchestral rock. The CD ends with a pretty ballad called "Autumn's Child."
Rejoicing in the Hands nevertheless includes elements that break the surface of the album's more burnished production. A couple of tracks begin with a gasping breath before the song starts, and Banhart cuts off and restarts another. He may intend these touches as another way to bring the recording down to earth, but they feel like calculated attempts to retain his status as an unconventional outsider. At this point, it would be silly to see Banhart as anything other than an increasingly established artist. Best he let the vividness of his imagery stand as his claim to unconventionality.