When Devendra Banhart first emerged two decades ago his eccentric persona, falsetto-heavy singing, and sprawling aesthetic made him the poster child of the then-burgeoning freak folk movement. He wasn’t merely prolific and extroverted in championing this style-colliding cultural moment, he also worked as an advocate for fellow travelers and overlooked heroes such as the great British folk singer Vashti Bunyan, whose career he helped resurrect. Over time the eccentricities of the Venezuelan-raised explorer have been moderated, and now the tender beauty and airiness of his music is no longer obscured by his old hippie persona. Still, the basic building blocks of his expansive sound endure, blending American folk with acoustic traditions of South America, particularly the music of Brazil.
On his 2019 album Ma the weightless grace of his gentle songs connected his innate feel for breezy pop set within spare arrangements. Working with long-time producer Noah Georgeson, his delicate warble fit perfectly amid restrained grooves and gauzy guitar picking. A tune like “Love Song” is steeped in a meditative Yacht Rock vibe, with mellow trumpets and flutes licking a post-disco rhythm while Banhart ruminated on an enduring romance. More often than not he’s tapping into the chill bossa nova and weirdo psych-folk of 70s Brazil with help from guitarist Rodrigo Amarante. The music conveys an effortless grace and a gentle loopiness in Banhart’s idiosyncratic singing.
During the pandemic he turned a bit more inward, reconnecting with Georgeson to make Refuge, an album much closer in spirit and sound to new age than folk, although the cosmic ethos of the former has always been part of his art. But in reality the recording finds Banhart digging into different influences from the 70s, with the simple trickle of piano arpeggios and synth washes evoking vintage sounds of Harold Budd and Brian Eno. The endeavor might’ve been an outlier, a cocooning desire born in destabilizing time, but there’s no doubt that the measured calm feels inextricably linked to the singer’s increasingly soothing sound world.