Mythology is full of metamorphoses, as even a cursory google will confirm. Characters change sex on a whim, men turn into wolves, Gods become any number of animals. Nymphs, poor things, are reconfigured as anything from laurel trees to fountains. It’s rare, though, for exotic beings to permanently assume human form, with all the angst that entails. When you can lead a carefree, lighter-than-air existence, why be burdened with mortal concerns?
This is the fate of Devendra Banhart, usually portrayed – somewhat simplistically – as elven king of the acid-folk nation. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, his fifth album, still features the sort of transformations that have established him, over the past five years, as a charismatic and mischievous figure on the edge of the mainstream. His gender, as ever, is pretty mutable. In “Lover”, meanwhile, Banhart at least dreams of shape-shifting into a cow, and then into a pear tree. “I want you to climb all over me, try my fruit and taste my seed,” he implores, randily.
When first we met him on 2002’s Oh Me Oh My. . ., Banhart came across as a faintly creepy, supernatural figure. Soon, however, he was leading a procession of folkish psychedelic troubadours out of the American undergrowth, a benign and mercurial leader of freaks, a hippy it was OK for the straights to like. Banhart sang of little yellow spiders and taking his teeth out dancing. Real life did not seem to intrude much on his strange, often infantilised and very beguiling world.
Smokey Rolls introduces a more complex Banhart. While still privileging those eccentricities, it also fits a conventional rock archetype. This is The Break-Up Album, a document of his split with CocoRosie’s Bianca Casady. “Endlessness didn’t last,” he sings on the beautiful piano ballad, “I Remember”, stripped of his quirks and finery, finding an authentic voice as he memorialises the relationship. “I remember you turning out the lights and all I ever saw was the red in your eyes,” he continues, and the direct tenderness is as striking as his vivid surrealism.
Elsewhere, the pathos is playfully disguised. “So Long Old Bean” is a fruity croon that, preposterously, suggests The Bonzo Dog Band on expedition – by mule train, I think – in the Andes. But beneath the archness, Banhart is again crafting a permanent record of his love affair. “It’s been a dream being with you,” he gently hams, “I couldn’t tell us apart, oh! And I know neither could you.” “Saved”, meanwhile, is a flaming gospel blues, all tremulous vamping, that finds our hero’s emotional problems solved, not by some external deity, but by “the fire burning deep inside of myself.”
Banhart could be talking about some insidious manifestation of the holy spirit, of course.
But it seems more likely he has just located his own strength of character. When he’s not anatomising his love life on Smokey Rolls or spinning tall tales, Banhart is reasserting himself as a free spirit. On “Freely”, he thoughtfully constructs one of those manifestos so beloved of the first hippy generation. His mother doesn’t understand, he notes, but “Still there’s only one way to shine, It’s called trying to live freely.”
“Freely” is as good a song as he’s ever written, actually – a musically mature relative of “Heard Somebody Say” from Cripple Crow. It cross-references the stately end of Brazilian Tropicalia (Caetano Veloso is a big influence here, especially on the Spanish-language songs like “Samba Vexillographica”) with the late ‘60s crop of LA songwriters.
As the title makes plain, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is a product of the canyons, recorded at a house in Topanga. Elliot Roberts, manager of Neil, Joni et al, looks after Banhart now, and another of his charges, David Crosby, was originally scheduled to guest (the haziness of Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name informs “Seaside” here, especially). Instead, “Freely” features an ethereal harmony from Linda Perhacs, one of that era’s finest and most elusive singers. Like Vashti Bunyan on 2004’s Rejoicing In The Hands, it seems Banhart can charm anyone into his sphere of influence. Besides Perhacs, The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson adds charango (a South American mandolin) to “Samba Vexillographica”, and, more glamorously, Gael Garcia Bernal duets on the South American folk of “Cristobal”.
Smokey Rolls isn’t really a folk album, however, and there are stretches where Banhart seems to be on the run from his old sound. It’s another kind of shape-shifting, really, as he expertly jumps genres from gospel (“Saved”) to Jackson 5 pop-soul (“Lover”), onto doleful reggae (“The Other Woman”) and a salsa jam that ends, gloriously, with an engorged Ernie Isley-style guitar solo (“Carmensita”). Then, of course, there’s the rabbinical doo-wop of “Shabop Shalom”, a dreamy skit in the style of Charles Trenet’s standard “La Mer (Beyond The Sea)”.
Banhart also does a presentable Jim Morrison impression in the final section of the eight minute “Seahorse”, which has previously shifted from canyon reverie, through chamber-waltz in the vein of “Golden Brown”, to a chuntering Crazy Horserock-out: he should experiment with heaviness more often. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of these songs is close to pastiche, as if Banhart is toying with genres in the same cavalier, affectionate way that he tosses about imagery.
Fortunately, Smokey Rolls is a long record, long enough to absorb such dalliances. When it ends, the impression of Devendra Banhart that stays with you is of the artful songsmith, finding a confidence to express himself in something other than riddles. The final track, “My Dearest Friend”, begins with a melodramatic sigh of “I’m gonna die of loneliness”. But soon, Banhart is poignantly joined by Vashti Bunyan, the woman who inspired him to sing in the first place. “My dearest friend,” they whisper, “You’ll soon begin to love again.” This is Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon: the testimony of a magical and idiosyncratic singer who had his heart broken and grew up, just a little, as a consequence.