Dissonant Notes

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Swallowed by the Cosmic Joke - Devendra Banhart: Missing In Action

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom."

Søren Kierkegaard

Sometime in late 2002 a friend recommended that I give a listen to a new album out on Young God Records. Knowing that I was not a big fan of their output, he made sure to mention that this was not a Swans-like musical attack, more a Marc Bolanesque slice of folk weirdness. Intrigued, I picked up "Oh Me Oh My..." by Devendra Banhart and was almost instantly charmed. Everything about the album emitted an otherworldly hum, from the lo-fi production to the combination of home-made scribble and disquieting detail that constituted the artwork. The songs themselves mostly stuck to simple two-chord finger-picking techniques or folky strumming that managed to pull off the same trick time and again, as the tensions of the melodies were relieved by a return to the root of the main chord / finger-picking pattern. The magic lay in Banhart's delivery and words, both of which overflowed with a certain polymorphic-perverse sexuality as Devendra found a childlike sensuality and eroticism in flesh, words, trees, him, her, them; all situations were open to touch and play. Many of the songs were appealing fragments while others, like "The Charles C. Leary", "Michigan State", "Hey Miss Cane", "Soon Is Good" and "Pumpkin Seeds" emerged as fully formed entities, discharging a forceful, spontaneous wisdom that reveled in naive delight at the sheer joyous fascination of being alive, of actually existing. Banhart was only 21 when the album came out and when it began to develop a well deserved but nevertheless ominous buzz expectations were high for a follow-up.

In 2004 it was announced that two new Banhart albums would be released that same year, both being the result of a highly productive recording session. First came "Rejoicing In The Hands". The appeal of lo-fi recordings can mean that an immediate skepticism is present when an artist decides to upgrade to a studio. With "Rejoicing In The Hands" though, all doubts were swept aside. With Michael Gira at the helm, the emphasis remained on the songs and finding the correct setting for their appreciation. With this in mind a home recording studio was selected where the singer could feel comfortable and at ease. Perhaps because of this, the results were a triumph. The lo-fi buzz was gone, but in its place was an intimate warmth and a more assured sense of song-craft. Banhart bloomed in his new setting, with the opening trio of songs "This is the Way", "A Sight to Behold" and "The Body Breaks" being so strong that they threatened to overshadow the rest of the album. As it is the album more than succeeds as a whole, with Devendra's lyrical impishness and childlike wisdom present and correct but this time with a certain adult sadness making its way to the surface, puncturing the naivety but adding a layer of hard won maturity. Its sister album "Niño Rojo" was, as should have been expected, more of the same. While not quite as strong as "Rejoicing In The Hands" it nevertheless had many moments of genuine brilliance, with infectious effervescence and autumnal reverie blending into a satisfying whole. With his position as hippie boy-genius seemingly unassailable Banhart retreated to the sidelines once more, only to reemerge in 2005 with another new album, this time released on British label XL Recordings instead of Young God Records. One would perhaps expect business as usual, but this was not to be. It is at this moment that Devendra's recording career began to unravel. How and why? Let's examine the details.

While on Young God, Michael Gira commented that he could make Devendra the Nick Drake of his generation. Banhart balked at the idea, and it is here that we can perhaps see the reason for his split from Young God. Michael Gira clearly had definite ideas about how Banhart should be presented and I can imagine that this overflowed into the recording studio. It's conceivable that Banhart was restricted from indulging in anything too nonsensical while on Young God, with Michael Gira demanding a certain tastefulness from the recordings. With this in mind Devendra making the leap to XL is somewhat understandable. Something else happened when he made the leap though. Not only did he allow himself to indulge in many previously unthinkable musical excursions, his quality control all but evaporated. On first picking up the album, the first thing we notice about "Cripple Crow" is the cover. Gone is Devendra's art and in its place is a tiresome "Sgt. Pepper..." knock-off. It seems that without Michael Gira's firm hand Devendra felt free to entertain every hippie cliche that would have invoked Gira's ire while on Young God. It begins with "Now That I Know" and it remains the high point of the album. It's no coincidence that as a song it's the most reminiscent of his previous efforts. Importantly, though, Gira's natural sounding production is replaced by a studio sheen of echo and Eagles-like finish. Worse still, on the vast majority of the album Banhart's words have managed to transform themselves into the worst kind of hippie-lite nonsense, the songs languishing in a humourless, clumsy anything-goes morass. Mischievous and inventive wordplay has given way to a full on celebration of the Cosmic Giggle, the rot that eats away at the base of much hippie philosophising. This philosophy implies that all actions, emotions and interactions are just one big meaningless game and as such nothing particularly matters. Its relationship to post-modern philosophy's moral relativism and spiteful irony deserves to be scrutinised. The Cosmic Giggle's main thrust is abhorrence at taking anything seriously. Why get hung up? Existence is merely a valueless game and to get uptight is to misunderstand how empty the whole charade really is.

The end result of believing such guff (apparently I cannot give my life meaning, it can only be thrust upon me from an outside source) is written all over "Cripple Crow". Jokes and giggles abound, with almost every song coming off as an obvious imitation or caricature. Even the better songs suffer, and the inordinate length of the album makes it drag as we have to hold our breath for another senseless exercise in banality along the lines of "Chinese Children". Suddenly Banhart's persona is childish instead of childlike, irritating and hackneyed where once it was charming and refreshing. I remember distinctly defending Banhart in the face of criticism when "Cripple Crow" was released, while privately nursing doubts. This was something he needed to get out of his system I reasoned, and he would surely return to form on his next release. I could not have been more wrong. The follow-up "Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon" was a complete travesty from start to finish. The old Devendra was now completely gone, and in his place was a feeble mimic who got by on cheap cosmic goof-offs and eccentric behaviour. Soon after "Smokey..." he signed to Warner Brothers. Having learned my lesson I refused to even touch his first album for Warner Brothers. While shopping for CDs one day, though, it came blasting out of the store speakers. I literally felt ill, barely able to believe that the same person who recorded "Rejoicing In The Hands" was responsible for the dross I was currently hearing. Every note of every song was an homage to a pastiche of a parody. In interviews Banhart talked of the joys of being on a major label, that despite all of our closed-minded indie misconceptions people who worked for major labels were really genuine people who treated him with respect. He was happy.

That Banhart was and is happy is probably true. The fact is, though, that his songs are devoid of any kind of tension or drive. These comfortable parodies are the artistic creations of somebody who clearly cares for nothing more than a laid-back existence. Now, that does not make him a bad human being and I wish him all the best in terms of the choices he has made. It does, though, make him a bad artist. I am not Devendra Banhart's friend. I know him as an artist who releases music and as such I rate his success in terms of his artistic output, not his personal happiness. I am not suggesting artists have to suffer, but I am saying that their work must have some sense of tension, some clue that there is an active mind working through problems. For Devendra it seems that such notions are simply laughable. Pull that stick out of your behind and stop being so uptight. So he's on a major label? So what! So his artistic output has declined to the point of embarrassment? So what! I'm probably just jealous, right? If anyone can make it through an hour of the smarmy self-congratulatory meanderings that constitute Banhart's current output they have a stronger constitution than me. The Cosmic Giggle embraces pointlessness and as such renders its adherents pointless. Worse still, it is used as a shield to deflect any kind of criticism. Is signing to a major label wrong? Who cares. Is the notion of selling out redundant? I don't know, but maybe if I strip naked and wear a phony native American headdress we can just laugh at that instead. Seriousness is a drag. That's why wars happen because people act all grown-up and serious. Let's all just revel in a value-free universe and we'll all feel better. Neither the Cosmic Giggle nor post-modern philosophy's studious embrace of the low-brow have done anything to shake the pillars of finance. On the contrary, the slop that they both serve up helps the marketing world to dish out mediocrity to all levels of society. We can all live in a crass, class-free existence where nobody takes anything seriously and all thoughts of criticism have been put to bed. If that's your idea of paradise then you're welcome to it. I continue to hold onto the idea that something matters, that our actions yield real-life repercussions that cannot and should not be reasoned away by a casual shrug. As such I find Banhart's betrayal of his talents to be a disgrace. The sad thing is, it seems like he's already been forgotten. His sell-out did not give him Rod Stewart levels of fame and for this reason he already feels like an afterthought. I want to remind people, though, that he was once a great artist and that people really did care about his music. Keep that in mind if you happen to see him shirtless at a music festival, jamming out to another 70's rock parody. Michael Gira, perhaps foolishly, thought this man could be his generation's Nick Drake. Instead we got an indie Jimmy Buffett that we never asked for.   

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