High Times

Huffing the elixir of eccentricity with Devendra Banhart

Once, I saw it snow in June. At the time, I lived in Ireland on a street lined with anemic cherry trees, renting a room filled with American souvenirs. On the hottest day of the year, I was shaking the glittery water around a plastic hula dancer in an Aloha, Hawaii dome when I happened to glance out the window. A swirl of white flakes blew in circular patterns above the pavement. For a moment, I honestly forgot itwas summertime. I forgot that the blossoms regularly fell from the sickly trees outside my door, and that I'd spent the entire week sweeping them into the trash. Magic had eclipsed logic. The city was a snow globe, and I was inside.

To believe in the inconceivable, you first have to conceive the unbelievable--it's the power of creation, not conviction, that allows us to accept the ridiculous as real. That's what I concluded this week when three consecutive days of heavy June storms didn't yield a single incredible snowflake. And then I turned up Devendra Banhart's debut Oh Me Oh My... as loud as it could go and compiled a list of fantastical things to have faith in. Like dogs that dream of the Christmas spirit, or a sun that licks you with its tongue, or bees that are buzzing black-eyed birds, or limbs that laugh in the air. Sometimes Banhart laughs, too, as he sings about these things--narcotic jingles firing from his synapses to be captured by broken four-tracks and answering machines. But when he does, he's acting out of joy, not bemusement. You can only call his music funny if you use that word to mean the same thing as it does when you describe the scent of the smokers' lounge at the High Times office.

Smells like victory, a triumph of the weird. "Isn't it strange?" Banhart cries on "Hey Miss Cane," mewling like a crack-fed Quentin Crisp. And then you start to consider the man behind the madness. The legend goes that, as a fetus, Banhart kicked his mother while she was watching Alec Guinness in Star Wars, prompting her to choose Obi as his middle name. Bound for Jedi greatness, he taught himself to play guitar, performing for the first time at the marriage of two men, an Elvis impersonator and a performer called Bob the Crippled Comic.

Still, even after Swans' Michael Gira released Banhart's self-recorded collection of lo-fi demos last year without altering them, the latter's aspirations remain humble. Of 1960s folk singer Vashti Bunyan, he recently told the New York Sun: "I want to get plastic surgery to look like her and then marry myself." Despite Banhart's well-marketed eccentricities, though, it's his music that ultimately answers his own question: No, he's not that strange. Even with fans anxious to call him the next Syd Barrett, this is one "outsider artist" who's just crazy enough to sing like he's sane.

Oh Me Oh My... is a record in both senses of the word: Heavy with history, it's like an aural document unearthed from a Civil War cemetery, fermented for over a century in the whiskey and sweat of the past. And Banhart straddles that timeline, taking inventory. The word flesh resounds throughout the album, as do teeth and bone, loading the lyrics with an endless cycle of growth and decay. Insects devour things that rot, and the sea washes away the remains. This is simply, Banhart insists, "the way the day goes by," as if the songs don't belong to their singer. The creaking guitar is the spirit of an abandoned house, the vocals the thoughts in an old woman's head. The hiss of the lo-fi recording sighs with the collective breath of its listeners. It's a capsule of humanity, something to play in the living rooms of the dead.

Banhart's songs suggest that all music relies on myths of immortality--something to reach beyond the verse-chorus-verse into a space where repetition breeds ritual and everymen can be guitar gods. A few weeks ago, when a pregnant Detroit bassist impaled herself on a microphone stand and was saved by doctors who managed to deliver her baby boy, a friend of mine insisted that if that kid doesn't grow up to be a heavy metal singer, then the legacy of rock 'n' roll has failed. And I thought of Banhart kicking toward some Star Wars future in his mother's womb, and knew exactly how din breeds destiny and destiny feeds din.

The simple wisdom of a Yoda-schooled sage surges through the chilly lines of "Michigan State," which zoom from summer to winter in just three minutes' time. "My cold has my favorite snow," this visionary weatherman croons on the track. I have my favorite snow, too. But only Banhart's gives me goosebumps.

 
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