Devendra Banhart/Cripple Crow
The year in question, by the way, is 2005, and you may well ask: Do I feel guilty that this thing has now stretched into February, when everybody else did their year-end wrap-ups in December? Maybe a little, but not really; I think summing up the year before it’s actually over is a little hasty, and anyway thoughts take time to filter down. It’s like collecting rain in a bucket — it takes as long as it takes, so why be in a hurry?
Anyway, on with the music. I’m hard-pressed to explain why I’m putting these two albums together. I’m sure there is an affinity between them, it’s just hard to put your finger on. Beck is an established veteran, Banhart a relative newcomer (albeit a prolific one). Cripple Crow is spare and acoustic, with a sound that could have been achieved just as easily in 1969; Guero is all Pro Tools and the Dust Brothers, with an ultramodern low end and every note in digitally perfect position.
Why, then, do I think they’re two sides of the same coin? For one thing, both of these guys like to sing in Spanish, although Banhart — who grew up partly in Venezuela — is a lot more serious about it. For another, while Beck’s folkie side is not much in evidence on Guero, we know it exists from albums like One Foot in the Grave. Again, though, the resemblance is fairly superficial. Beck approaches folk music from the bluesy, Mississippi John Hurt side, while Banhart is most definitely a disciple of Donovan; his brand of folk is spacy, contemplative, and unapologetically hippiefied. The former is whiskey-drinking folk, the latter dope-smoking folk, and while in one sense that’s splitting hairs, in another sense the two are worlds apart.
In the end, I think the connection has less to do with style and more with personality. To really get to the point I’m trying to make, I have to once again invoke the name of that eternal touchstone, David Bowie. In the last 15 minutes I’ve started developing a theory that a big part of Bowie’s appeal has to do with the fact that he grew up in public — or, more to the point, continually evolved without really “growing up,” that is, losing his youthful elasticity. In the 70s we saw him trying on different identities much as a teenager might. His vaunted androgyny was really not so much gay as soft and unformed, innocent, but suggestive of a sexuality that could develop in any direction. In subsequent years we’ve seen a more “adult” Bowie: sometimes a shrewd, successful careerist; sometimes a damaged man struggling to shake off his addictions and recover his creative spark. Today’s Bowie is a happy, productive family man who’s finally showing signs of mortality — a face that’s starting to look worn and a heart that’s given out on him once. But even so, he’s never lost a certain boyishness, which is quite in evidence on that TV ad where he steals Snoop Dogg’s medallion and smiles impishly.
Both Beck and Devendra Banhart have that same man-child quality. Beck, at 35, is just beginning to look like he might be old enough to drink. Artistically, he’s not so much settled down as integrated his many facets into a style that is now identifiably his own. Guero touches on the playfulness of Odelay, the psychedelic lyricism of Mutations, and the haywire-robots-on-coke vibe of Midnite Vultures, and while you could call the results schizophrenic, you could also just call it a Beck album.
Banhart could be his younger brother who’s just dropped out of college, sporting a noticeably Jeebus-like beard and shaggy curls. You don’t have to look very hard to see his childlike tendencies: Take, for instance, Cripple Crow‘s eighth track, “I Feel Just Like a Child.” Or its fourth track, “Long Haired Child”; sixteenth track, “Chinese Children”; or penultimate track, “Little Boys.” On this last one the obsession turns a bit disturbing, as when Banhart sings “I see so many little boys I want to marry.” But the effect is less perverse than willfully provocative, as when Bowie was telling journalists he was gay, milking suggestiveness for all it was worth. Which begs the question, can you be consciously childlike? If you know you’re doing it, it’s not really innocent, is it? Well, never mind. Why ruin Cripple Crow by overanalyzing it? It’s a great listen for a rainy day, anodyne for gray skies, crunchy and comforting as five-bean chili. No more analysis for today.