Devendra Banhart is a funny old bird. His most successful release to date is probably Cripple Crow, a 22 track monster which defied the listener to develop an intimate relationship with it. Habitually, he skips from one form of folk to another, offering Latin rhythms at one moment in a song, and the next seguing into some Appalachian moan; this makes him a unique voice, but also a frustrating one. It sometimes feels as if Banhart never stays at one vein long enough to mine it properly.
What Will We Be, his latest record, is no different. In the space of one song – ‘Angelika’, for example – he can go from lilting pop folk to a 50s jazz shuffle, from one language to another, and then sidestep into bluegrass. He’ll follow a straight-forward indie folk piano piece (‘First Song for B’) with a more shapeless offering (‘Last Song for B’) – deliberately, and cavalierly, toying with the structure of his own record. Banhart does not wish to be captured in any one moment or any one song. Even, one might hazard a guess, any one album – his first release for a properly major label, What Will We Be still steadfastly refuses, like all the others before it, to have anything like a defining characteristic.
Yes, it’s perhaps smoother than anything he’s done before; and, sure, this makes in a way for a more unified listen. But pay anything like closer attention – that beautifully restrained brass solo in ‘Chin Chin & Much Muck, the chugging rock of ‘Rats’, the hyperactive reggaeish closer of ‘Foolin’ – and the whole thing is curling at every conceivable edge. Does this make the record a mess? Yes, undoubtedly. And is Banhart’s wilful kookiness wearing a little thin in places? Possibly. But I’m charmed by this record despite myself. It might well help you enjoy this record more if you’ve never come across Banhart before – which may well be Warner Brothers’ plan. Either way, I dissent from Pitchfork’s view: if you can listen to it with fresh ears, What Will We Be is a very sweet little record.