In a 2003 interview, Devendra Banhart told NPR that he was “not a very good guitar player,” that he only played “one or two chords in all [his] songs,” but that his skill sufficed “to carry the lyrics and carry the melody.” Two years later, with two more full-length albums in the bag (2004’s Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojo, recorded in the same session), Banhart has not only branched out as a guitar player, but he has also improved upon the home recordings that swept him under the seemingly inaccessible freak-folk rug.
While extremely polished and more indicative of a stable folk identity than his 2002 debut on Young God, Oh Me Oh My, Banhart’s 2004 records offered little variety among songs. He had found his style and run with it, which likely explained why he needed two albums to present the thirty-two tracks he’d recorded. But that is exactly what makes Cripple Crow such a fantastic departure: Banhart has honed his simple, observational style, and he’s also succeeded in introducing unlikely genres to his music that would feel awkward if performed by anyone else.
“I Feel Just Like a Child,” “Long Haired Child” and “Chinese Children” toy around with classic soul and psychedelia to the point where they’d nearly pass for products of 1970. And Banhart’s beautiful, precise voice shines on experimentations in Spanish folk, like “Santa Maria Da Feira” and “Quedate Luna.” For someone who’d spent the majority of his childhood in Venezuela and developed such a clean accent, it almost seems absurd that he’s waited this long to formally introduce the language to his classical guitar.
Still, Banhart really projects himself in his lyrics. A self-proclaimed D-student-turned-San-Francisco-Art-Institute-student, he thrives on art and divides his time between drawing and songwriting. As a result, he’s learned exactly where to apply his honest observation ability. On Nino Rojo, “Little Yellow Spider” placed oft-underestimated animals in the spotlight, and “At the Hop” shed light on sensations frequently ignored in song. Blending all five senses into a single song is a feat typical of children’s tunes, but Banhart takes his understanding of childlike detail one step further on Cripple Crow.
The innocent observations on this record are ironically smart in their portrayal of a child’s perspective on life. No adult should have the naiveté to state aloud that “Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are the only Beatles in the world,” or that “if I lived in China I would have some Chinese children.” And yet, Banhart can transform his childish remarks into brutally honest pieces of social commentary. “I Feel Just Like a Child” (a self-explanatory, sweetly executed temper tantrum) offers the line “I need you to please explain the war,” which, when paired with simple anti-war song “Heard Somebody Say,” reconstructs a child’s lack of understanding into a statement about how complex the world is despite being torn apart by simple yet unmet expectations like peace.
Cripple Crow is demanding because of its length – after twenty-two tracks on a single disc, nearly any artist would be difficult to tolerate. But the album is beautifully executed. It is with Cripple Crow that an artist who once recorded on broken equipment at home now sings with enough clarity for every tongue-palate connection to be heard. And that kind of intimacy, especially with a record as subtly intelligent as this one, is far more necessary than a carried lyric or melody.
Audio interview between Devendra Banhart and Face Culture