For most of this decade, Devendra Banhart’s seemingly effortless ability to make music that referenced classic Laurel Canyon folk but was also unmoored by time allowed him to tower over his freak-folk contemporaries. He doesn’t just fall under the freak-folk banner; he is freak-folk. But around 2007, cracks began forming in his bearded façade. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Mountain, his 2007 album, was a half-solid, half-overblown self-indulgent affair, and his 2008 album with bandmate Greg Rogove as Megapuss was such a joke, I fear that using it as a reference is out of date, and it came out last year.
What Will We Be, Banhart’s major-label debut, is something of a self-correction for his recent missteps, as it is more svelte (it’s still a tad too long at 14 tracks), it has fewer meaningless genre experiments (which made Smokey D.O.A.), and it stands with Cripple Crow on the better end of Banhart’s discography.
What Will We Be opens with one of the better three track runs on a Banhart album, opening with the aloof roller “Can’t Help But Smiling,” sprawling out with the bossa nova of “Angelika” and concluding with “Baby,” a track that fits in between Motown and early ‘70s Grateful Dead. “Baby” is the clear highlight of What Will We Be. Its charms are plentiful. From the locked-in groove, the understated bass line, Banhart’s weepy, mumbled lyrics, it’s the rare track that manages to transcend all of Banhart’s quirks. It should be soundtracking “meaningful” indie-centric movies (does Zach Braff have any films in production?) very soon.
The rest of What Will We Be fails at varying degrees to live up to its opening run, but there are only a few true clunkers here (the album’s downtrodden centerpiece “First Song for B” and “Last Song for B” is out of character, and “Chin Chin & Muck Muck”’s lazy lyrics seem like a holdover from the Megapuss sessions). And for the most part the genre experiments work well, particular the stoner rock, frayed nerves riff of “Rats,” the Zeppelin-esque pastoral folk (and mellow clarinet) of “Maria Lionza,” and the skronky reggae of effervescent closer “Foolin’.”
There’s something almost fairy tale charming about how Banhart has been able to sustain his little insular world where he does whatever the hell he feels like on record. Banhart clearly gets bogged down in that freedom, as the amount of sheer hokiness on some of his albums can attest to. But with What Will We Be, Banhart gets back to earning that right for total creative freedom.