Devendra Banhart – The Black Babies EP

Devendra Banhart
The Black Babies EP

If Steve Earle was speaking the truth in his “Hard-Core Troubadour,” a tribute to the late Townes Van Zandt, the world is in need of another person to fearlessly traverse this country with nothing more than a voice, a guitar, and the aura of unspeakable truth. Obviously, it’s a life that few can hack, as it has made a nasty habit of eating its favorite sons, but there is no shorter route to respectability for songwriters. No family aside from the friends and fans he happens to meet, no home other than the stage and the road, no responsibilities other than getting himself to the next show – the troubadour archetype is as romantically clichéd as it is coveted, yet it holds a special place in the American mind, wearing out a resting place where the desperate strains of Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie can rest. And though he’s only 22-years-old, the rumors hanging in the unkempt mane of Devendra Banhart seem to suggest that he is a worthy inheritor of that tradition, as the current conjecture presents him shrouded in drifter mystique, not beholden to a permanent residence or everyday concerns, free to roam the country and write songs he leaves on friends’ answering machines.
His debut, last year’s Oh Me Oh My… started a buzz avalanche that was surprisingly deserved – and particularly unexpected due to the lo-fi crackle of the home recordings and the idiosyncratic nature of his gifts. Eerie and indefinable, yet breathtaking for its poetic candor and naked resonance, Banhart seemed like that proverbial one in a million that arrives fully formed despite being born a few months premature. The Black Babies EP, eight tracks snagged from the Oh My Oh My… sessions (six new, two old) aimed at the European market and those for whom the 22 tracks of his debut weren’t sufficient, exists as confirmation that the reported vast stores of songs in his repertoire are really as deep as rumored and hope that he could be one of the few artists to capture smoke in a bottle, needing no mirrors to transcend his compositional elements and transfix his listener. In doing so, Banhart uses the most time-honored tricks of a master entertainer.
Much like the haunting archival recordings of Skip James or Blind Willie McTell, Banhart uses his high, thin croon and startling imagery to inhabit a world caught somewhere between the temporal and the spiritual, unable to establish residence in either. And while he never outright adopts the structures of the blues, he does well to channel the emotive simplicity and ethereal metaphor that many of that genre’s best storytellers so innately understood. “Clouds are sleeping, sleeping in the sky,” he coos on the picturesque “Bluebird,” ominously personalizing the chorus with “clouds are sleeping over Sarah’s eyes.” That voice, double-tracked but rarely lining up seamlessly, is similarly hard to pin down to any particular tradition, one minute like Robert Plant calling for Pan in the guise of an English folk song, the next weaving a tight finger-picked guitar measure around one of his hypnotically simple melodies.
And inside that deceptive simplicity lies Banhart’s brilliance. Although the strangled wind-up toy that introduced the Oh Me Oh My… retread “Cosmos and Demos” is a bit overdone, it echoes the sinister dichotomy that lies at the heart of Banhart’s music, turning into a particularly effusive lullaby hung around the line “the only thing you taught me is the only thing you know / how to start a fire once the embers cease to glow.” No doubt, snakes, birds, horses, bees, toothbrushes, the wind, and exotic (and some not so) locales figure in his writing, placing him constantly on the precipice of childlike innocence and sinisterly demented storyteller that doesn’t realize that his songs are leading his listener astray. Making the songs seem even more entrancing is the effortlessness with which he delivers them, as if the recordings were done only for his own amusement but transported him to a deeper part of himself. Throughout, one gets the uneasy feeling that they possibly shouldn’t be privy to such material.
Ultimately, it makes little difference as to whether the stories surrounding Devendra Banhart are true or not. Obviously, one release does not a career make, and Banhart is presented with the unenviable task of moving his music forward sonically while retaining the mystical aura of his songwriting and storytelling. And as every lo-fi band that crawled out of the static hiss of the early 90s can attest, doing so is not a given. This release, while not offering anything revelatory in his limited body of released work, does add six more songs to a canon that has yet to see a particularly bad one. In short, he’s an artist making few obvious concessions to the conventions of the genre he works within, with the ominously crackling recording quality, the extraordinarily vivid imagery, and his vulnerable voice converging to create an immediate payoff. Whatever the case, there’s nothing like personal mythology to establish a songwriter as having had the life experience to be seen as a credible source for the depth presented in his art, and Devendra Banhart seems to be the rare case where the life of the songwriter and the content of his songs are both compelling enough that he should have an immediate head start on just about any guitar-toting prophet he comes across. All hail the new troubadour.