(Vapor; 2008)

By Traviss Cassidy | 18 November 2008

Devendra’s penis: “I lean left.”

Yes, we know. If Oh Me Oh My (2002) tipped off Banhart’s penchant for fucking around and “Little Boys” indulged his at-the-time brashest use of sexuality-as-shock-value, Surfing, Banhart’s collaboration with Priestbird drummer Greg Rogove, seals the pube-haired folkie’s increasingly embarrassing post-Niño Rojo (2004) devolution toward becoming weirdo folk’s Kevin Barnes. So: fuck.

“I want to fuck the president in the asshole!”

I realize the comparison isn’t airtight. Banhart’s turn to lazy over-sexuality doesn’t have an ideological daddy in mind—a Prince to Barnes’s sequined buffoonery—and I honestly don’t think Devendra hates himself. Nor is Megapuss Ween, nor will they ever be. Ween can take their potty-and-pussy jokes to Dadaist levels of absurdity only because they back them up with killer chops and a hilarious ear for parody. Theirs is a deep belly-wrenching humor; Megapuss aim for no more than a self-conscious titter—the very worst kind—and they fail even at this.

“Gotta get back / Gotta get up / Gotta get it oooon with you!”

The above interjection by Banhart’s ever-jiggling penis notwithstanding, “Crop Circle Jerk ‘94” defies it’s very soul and keeps the jerk-off humor to a minimum. Unsurprisingly, its one of the only redeeming moments on Surfing, a chance for Devendra to show that he still has a effortless charm with pop music when he’s not singing about sodomy to the tune of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” or dedicating an almost four-minute song entirely to the plentitude of ham.

Those who hail Surfing as a return to Banhart’s relaxed, loose-limbed form (if nothing else) are kind of missing the point. Even the supposedly self-serious Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (2007) was a mixed bag of oppressively straight-faced hippie jams and tongue-in-cheek novelty tunes. It’s true that “To the Love Within” and “Lavender Blimp” are two of the most assured and pleasant ditties on Surfing, but both are semi-lazy recreations of the Campfire Songs (2003) ambience circumambulating half-baked sex euphemisms. Or some such.

Perhaps the key to Banhart’s success isn’t to keep his songs limber, it’s to show at least a moderate degree of focus, a bit of restraint and respect directed, even vaguely, towards his listeners. It’s not too much to ask for him to hint at the affable, grandfatherly figure who spearheaded the self-consciously bloated—and gratifying—freak folk movement in the early ‘00s, though it seems as if that man is all but gone, aged backwards, serving up an uninteresting slice of puerile pie. It’s hard (tee-hee) to not imagine Banhart blind and indulgent, presuming his fans to be so ga-ga for him that they’ll swallow all of his insipid antics. But it’s also hard to not imagine that in some sense he’ll be right, that there’s a swarthy cadre of fans out there defending this pap with claims of whimsy or anti-conservatism or neo-sexual-revolution. Surfing does not serve a discussion of any of these things; it is, considering all ephemeral connotations, a side project. And an obnoxious one at that.