The sixth studio album by Devendra Banhart is the best he’s ever made. What Will We Be is also great enough in patchouli-scented spurts to suggest that the 28-year-old singer-songwriter’s defining classic — his utopian-rock counterpart to historic footprints such as Neil Young’s Harvest, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by the Incredible String Band and the open-heart voodoo of Skip Spence’s Oar — is one more record and a little more focus away.
Proof comes early in “Baby,” a ball of dancing guitars and choral glaze that sounds like a woodland Beach Boys, and the warm, overlapping logic of the psychedelic-hearth guitars in “Goin’ Back.” Banhart’s idea of a first-class trip takes in all of the right stops — heavy stoner rock, Brazilian Tropicália, the British folk revival and Marc Bolan’s acoustic-hobbit and electric-tyke eras are a few more — and he writes a lot here about total immersion of the senses. “We’re lost in the only thing/Truly worth gettin’ lost in,” Banhart sings with sleepy relish in the opening calypso stroll, “Can’t Help But Smiling.”
He can also lose his way through a song. Banhart — who made What Will We Be with a small band (including longtime guitarist-collaborator Noah Georgeson) in a house in Northern California, for that home-brewed flavor — sometimes crowds his spells with perplexing mood swings. “Angelika” is a soft, buoyant call to joy, over a sparkling nest of guitars, until it veers into a jarring kitsch of drums and chant. In “Rats,” Banhart declares heaven on Earth (“Love is light ignited/And everyone is invited”) through big echo over a slowed-down chip off Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” — except for the bits where he and the band keep breaking into a faster saucy boogie. There are two better, separate songs in there.
It’s as if Banhart has not quite left behind the fragmented intrigue of his early releases almost a decade ago. But Banhart’s other favorite lyric theme is constancy — the pursuit of extended states of love and grace — and when he trusts the straight-line adventure in a good melody, What Will We Be is original bliss. “16th & Valencia, Roxy Music” is a sharp homage to the band in the title, with a be-in buzz (“I know I look high/But I’m just free dancing”). And there is a three-track run late in this album that promises a lot for the next one — a suite of gently magnetic love songs that feels like one fine trance.
“Maria Lionza” is a bed of plucked guitars with rippling clarinet and deceptive mounting force in Banhart’s few lines of need. There is another shift in scene, a tropical-jazz interlude, but it actually works as an easy-rolling bridge to the bass-note pulse, baritone humming and Banhart’s Spanish-language rapture in “Brindo.” That dissolves into “Meet Me at Lookout Point,” a simple gem with the Haight-Ashbury aura of Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 ballad “Comin’ Back to Me” but a fresh air, too, in thewind blown guitars and vocal devotion. It is the sound of Banhart finding his own way forward through that past.
There are two more short songs, but “Lookout Point” is this album’s closing peak. From there, you can almost hear the record that will someday be Banhart’s American beauty.