Devendra Banhart | Niño Rojo
Pitchfork Media | by Dominique Leone
Banhart's record makes the most sense at the mercy of simple pleasures and the young at heartIt's funny that Young God founder Michael Gira should make a point in the press release for Niño Rojo that his role in Devendra Banhart's career was merely to release his music, that everything else took care of itself. I imagine Gira felt strongly about Banhart from the get-go, and his pleasant surprise that the rest of the world (inasmuch as Banhart's newfound popularity translates to the "rest" of anything) has since come to agree is equally understandable. Yet, I wonder if, like me, Gira gets the feeling that Banhart has arrived at a place where he's independent of Young God, himself, or his press. Journalists are often accused of hubris, wherein they're supposed to believe the things they write about are necessarily benefited due to increased publicity. In fact, musicians can benefit from this, but if I'm to believe Gira (and I do), Banhart's success is due more to people responding "honestly to his music."
The last time I wrote about Banhart, regarding his Rejoicing in the Hands album from earlier this year, I emphasized how removed from contemporary context his songs felt. His music seemed to me neither superficially "odd" nor caught up in what my fellow music writers call "freak-folk" (despite the fact that Banhart's compilation Golden Apples of the Sun assisted greatly in defining the term). His music felt like the impressions of one person, stopped along the way to record things he saw or thought, and that even when I had no idea what he was talking about, the conviction at the heart of the songs would resound a long, deep chord. Almost two seasons later, things feel different: Like it or not, Banhart no longer sings for just one person (either himself, or whomever is hearing him) and, more than with any other artist, I'll identify him with 2004. How's that for context?
Okay, so for the first fallacy in my revelation: None of the songs on Niño Rojo are any more or less intrinsically bound to 2004 than those on Rejoicing in the Hands. They were recorded at the same Lynn Bridges-coordinated sessions that produced the prior album, and in fact will be released as a single double-vinyl set with Rejoicing soon. I could take a very easy way out and assume that over time, these records will blend into one experience, in all likelihood becoming the definitive collection of Banhart's songs. However, where I formerly praised the singer/songwriter for taking me back to a time before MP3s and compulsive music consumption, I now believe that his preferences for surreal list-songs and lazy sing-alongs are simply an excellent counterpoint to these modern extravagances. And counterpoints are reactionary; they never exist alone.
The second fallacy is that by admitting that Banhart's music seems to have a different audience or status within whatever group he's supposed to speak for, despite not actually "changing," is that I assume he was ever speaking for anyone-- even scarier, that his music should necessarily be judged by whichever way the wind is blowing. Personally speaking, that's a sickening thought, but one that I take for granted in most mainstream music analysis. Gira talks about honest responses to music, and mine is that Banhart's songs are now as typically, idiosyncratically "him" as ever. I have the faint impression of a returning traveler, despite knowing these pieces aren't actually "new." However, it's not spring anymore, and few who hear this record are going to be in the same frame of mind they were last April. Perhaps that's a good argument for originally releasing Niño Rojo with Rejoicing as a double-CD set. It's no judgment against Banhart, but my gut says this music will be received slightly less enthusiastically than his prior work.
That said, the music, fittingly, inevitably speaks for itself. The most interesting to me are the songs that suggest Banhart could become some kind of mythical roots-rocker, as on "We All Know" and "Be Kind". There, I imagine a very informal meeting of the minds in Memphis, where the ghosts of Richard Manuel, Gram Parsons and a drunk Joe Strummer bark out the choruses in Banhart's half-euphoric, half-tossed off songs. But he's preoccupied with other things: "The light of this whole world and mind aligns your legs to time." I think that means he has a crush on CocoRosie's Bianca Casady, to whom "Be Kind" is dedicated. He gets even more to the point on "A Ribbon", with his most straightforward request, "I'd like to sleep with you if you'd like me to."
However, Banhart's disinterest in obvious narratives is, for now, his greatest strength. Even when, as on "Ay Mama", his statements would be clear, he obscures them. "Ay Mama, no hay que llorar," repeated over delicate, finger-picked acoustic guitar figures, serves as mantra-- all the better not knowing he's trying to persuade his mother that it's not necessary to cry. Would the song have more emotional weight if I didn't have to google the translation? Banhart, throughout Niño Rojo, demonstrates that it wouldn't; the whimsical non-sequiturs of "We All Know" ("Like the type of tongue that roots from your breast/ And it shakes your pretty little clavicle"), the zoological parade of "Little Yellow Spider" (where Banhart pays tribute to pigs mating with men, crabs turning to crab-cakes, and white monkeys who figured out something he couldn't understand) and the poetic depictions of "Owl Eyes" ("Semilla/ Owl Eyes unwinding/ Asia/ All your little diamonds, all your little diamonds") reveal little beyond the impressions of dusty, old calm and the American surreal.
Banhart covers Ella Jenkins' "Wake Up, Little Sparrow" as the opener to this album. The 80-year-old Jenkins has a made a career of creating children's folk music with an educational and inclusively moral bent, and perhaps lends Niño Rojo its best context: Over time, beyond cultural movement and sociological or musicological phenomenon, Banhart's record makes the most sense at the mercy of simple pleasures and the young at heart. You want truth? Beauty? They're here, in basic forms. Progress and relevance are very different concerns, and ones I'm willing to leave to historians with a better advantage. And as all Gira had to do was release the stuff, at the moment, I'm content to listen in turn.