Devendra Banhart is a master of the idiotically cosmic. On Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, his fifth album, he holes up in Topanga Canyon to make an old-fashioned psychedelic folk opus, breathing in the California spirits and listening to his beard for inspiration. He runs through terrible ideas and twists them into good songs, even the one that goes “In 1902/The devil sucked off the moon.” You could complain that this guy needs an editor, but that’s like saying a dancing bear needs a compass. Going too far is the only beat D steps to, and the funniest stuff on his albums would be the first to get cut. When his sunshine superfreak is on, he’s like Jim Morrison; when he’s not, he’s Don Knotts. But he gets off in both roles.
On Smokey, Banhart gets touched by all sorts of Sixties muses: David Crosby, Donovan, Skip Spence and especially Jerry Garcia. His Grateful Dead acoustic-campfire vibe has gotten positively Aoxomoxoa-tastic. But there’s nothing minimal about the music, which is cleanly produced, smartly textured hippie shamble. He gets help from his usual commune of freak-folk buddies, along with some strange celebrity guests: The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson on “Samba Vexillographica,” actor Gael Garcia Bernal on “Cristobal.” On his last album, Cripple Crow, Banhart tried too hard to make sense, with an abundance of annoying reggae goofs that sounded too busy and normal. But here his music has a renewed sense of wide-open space, especially in country-style ballads like “Freely” and “My Dearest Friend.” His lyrics are just clouds passing through the sky, and his melodies are trees to climb. As a result, Smokey is his strongest music since 2004’s Nino Rojo, if not his best ever.
Banhart really tops himself on “Seahorse.” He starts out with acoustic guitar, warbling, “I’m high and I’m happy and I’m free/I got my whole heart laid out right in front of me.” His vibrato evokes the young Leonard Cohen or the nonsmoking Bob Dylan of Nashville Skyline. But then the drums kick in, and soon he’s musing over sex, fish and reincarnation, along with piano, organ, flute, a 5/4 jazz groove and a Neil Young-style guitar jam. It sounds excellent. There’s no real reason for it to go on for eight minutes, but looking for reasons in a Banhart song is like looking for car-insurance advice from a spider plant.
“Tonada Yanomaminista” is another highlight, a wild rocker with Byrds guitars and wiggy lyrics about hippos and horses and the devil. The spacious ballad “Bad Girl” resembles the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” — it’s got electric piano, a George Harrison-brand wah-wah guitar lick and Banhart confessing, “I’ve been a bad girl.” Banhart indulges his love of Brazilian music throughout, singing in Portuguese in the delicate “Rosa” and crooning “Samba Vexillographica” with the erotic melancholy of his idol, Caetano Veloso. “Carmencita” rolls Banhart’s stoner-Spanish mumbling over Latin guitar and a conga groove.
Banhart calls his style “naturalismo,” his point being that the organic and the artificial aren’t so far apart. (As Wallace Stevens used to say, “It is an artificial world/The rose/Of paper is of the nature of its world.”) But this longhaired, underfed, leaping gnome never seems to take himself seriously. It would only take the slightest hint of hippie smugness to make him bomb, yet Banhart is still fun to listen to. Like any of the new freak-folk breed, he flirts with nostalgia, longing for the innocent frontier weirdness of the Band’s Music From Big Pink. Except unlike some of his peers, he knows there was nothing so innocent about the Band in the first place — they were professional musicians, not farmers. They could only live on the frontier after they’d created it for themselves. And like them, Banhart inhabits a Big Pink of his own crazed imagination.