When we first met Devendra Banhart on 2002’s Oh Me Oh My, he was a fragile outsider artist recording music on cassettes and answering machines. Eerily supernatural and absurdly cosmic, he found a place in the American underground for folkish psychedelic rock where the organic and the artificial come together, something Banhart calls “naturalismo.” Four albums later, Banhart remains a leader in this pack — and Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon may be his best so far.
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is a universe all its own, skipping between genres and languages as often as Banhart explores his love life and reasserts himself as a free spirit — in this case, a California free spirit; Banhart shacked up in a pastoral hillside home in the bohemian enclave of Topanga Canyon to create this lavishly produced and elegantly textured acoustic and avant-garde rock.
But the album, which was co-produced by Noah Georgeson, is very much the work of a band. Smokey features the same musicians Banhart typically tours with, as well as with some interesting celebrity guests. (Opener “Cristobal,” for example, an enchanting South American tone-setter, features actor Gael Garcia Bernal on back-up vocals.) Tenderly crooned ballad “Bad Girl” is a gem in which Banhart sings, “I’ve been a bad girl/ I ain’t playing no fair/ I want you to be free/ But I don’t want to share.” Nothing about Banhart or his music is minimal. Set to nocturnal atmospherics, his lyrics tell simple stories, and his melodies are enticing melodies. On the country-style ballad “Freely,” he swoons, “And my mother may not understand/ why I’m the way that I am/ But I love her, and I want to let her in.”
“Seahorse,” my favorite on the album, typifies Smokey. With all of its unexpected twists and turns, influences and homages, Banhart shows no signs of holding back. It begins with a soft acoustic guitar and Banhart singing, “I’m high and I’m happy and I’m free/ I got my whole heart laid out right in front of me.” But just as easily as the album shifts course, the drums kick in, and soon he’s singing about sex and reincarnation over a very Doorsy jazz groove of piano, organ, and flute. Later, a late-’60s-style rock ‘n’ roll guitar jam breaks in. By the time it’s over, the song has recalled Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison, Neil Young, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane.
Banhart is one of the most fascinating and unpredictable artists of his generation, and he has once again created an eclectic, powerful, and memorable album. The final cut, “My Dearest Friend,” concludes Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon as Banhart and company sing, “I’m going to die from loneliness/ My dearest friend/ You’ll soon begin to love again.” Not only is it achingly graceful, but it’s also a powerful monument to how far Banhart has come along — and it hints at how much further he will go.