A year’s worth of Devendra Banhart
By CJ Sommerfeld, Staff Writer
“Helado Negro has made a rainbow out of frostbite, an orchid out of an Orc, a palace out of a pancake.”
It seems like a lot of artists took advantage of the time spent indoors that COVID-19 forced upon us. One such creative is Devendra Banhart. While his first 2020 single—a remix of “Love Song” from his 2019 album, Ma—was released in January prior to any of this quarantine madness began in the west, his subsequent releases came out well after the COVID-19 insaneness had already begun. I assume they were at least a partial by-product of the physical isolation that many experienced this year. Despite how these singles—“It’s Not Always Funny,” “Let’s See,” “Love Song (Helado Negro Remix),” and EP—Vast Ovoid—came to be, their sounds do not veer far from the all-over-the-place aesthetic of his previous albums. This makes these 2020 works a must-listen-to collection.
Banhart is a Venezuelan American freak-folk and visual artist. Most of his album covers are his own works. These images vary from abstract shapes in monochromatic backgrounds, to blue-ballpoint-pen-sketched characters atop blank white pages. “Let’s See,” and “Love Song (Helado Negro Remix)” exhibit similar cover works such as primary coloured line-painted flowers. “It’s Not Always Funny” arrays a disassembled man, unproportionate and hindering to Picasso’s primitive works. His EP, Vast Ovoid, similarly showcases floating human extremities, but also swimming eyeballs, a clown smile, as well as some other shapes that are oddly phallic. In 2015, Banhart published two art books which showcase lo-fi drawings (some of which are drawn on lined paper) as well as paintings, photographs of him and his pals, and other scraps of mixed-media.
Similar to this multi-creative’s unconventional approach to art, his music offers a similarly eclectic sound. Although Banhart’s currently released works are prototypically his, the vocals seem to have taken a woozy, Bob Dylan turn—most notably, in the tune “Let’s See.” The track begins by offering a delusion of brief ideas and isolated nouns: “Swatting a fly/With nuclear bomb/Minimum eye/Pattern is gone/Thoughts carry on/Oblivion.” As the lyrics transform to be grammatically coherent, the rhythm slows down as melody concludes with an alteration of what could be Thrashy TV’s “Inside, Outside, USA” however due to its classic nature, is probably that of The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA.”
The texture of “Let’s See” is thin, exhibiting simple and almost predictable guitar and keyboard progressions. That of “It’s Not Always Funny,” however, is much more intricate. Not only does the tune constantly contour, but it also showcases a larger ensemble of instrumentals. This increased thickness encourages the listener to not only listen to the track’s lyrics, but instead focus is shared between the tune’s poetry and the tangle of the instruments—most notably the trumpet. A complexity of xylophone, voices as instruments, synth, and other percussions are heard in the short tune “Vast Avoid.” Whereas ukulele is introduced into “Love Song (Helado Negro Remix).”
This tune is a modified version of a track that was originally featured on Banhart’s 2019 album, Ma. The man who remixed the song was electronic artist Helado Negro. The online music publication, Pitchfork, cited Banhart’s description of this new version, and his review sounds like lyrics itself: “Helado Negro has made a rainbow out of frostbite, an orchid out of an Orc, a palace out of a pancake. In his reworked vision of ‘Love Song,’ it’s like he set the whole song free, gave it space to roam, way beyond where it once was.” Banhart’s 2020 tunes are complex—lyrically and instrumentally, and their album covers are worthy of framing and putting on the wall by themselves. These tracks are quick listens, why not give them your ear?