So much of the best art seems born from pain. History testifies to this with stories of tortured artists: Van Gogh cutting off his own ear, Kerouac drinking himself into oblivion, and too many suicides to count. Rock music has Kurt Cobain and, recently, Elliott Smith. Even the Beach Boys, the musically sunniest group I can think of, have lyrics full of anxiety and frustration (see songs like “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”). When The Beatles sang, “It’s getting better all the time,” they had to earn it with songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Help!”
Critics, especially, will accept light only at the end of a very dark tunnel, and even then, the artist better hurry up and find another tunnel to suffer in. Cursive frontman Tim Kasher touches on the self-perpetuating aspects of this artistic pain when, in “Art is Hard,” he sings, “You gotta sink to swim.” This is to say no one wants a happy artist, because then he might start singing sappy songs about how much he loves his kids.
It’s frustrating to me, this obsession with the dark, because, well, don’t most of us want to be happy? Shouldn’t it be possible to create beautiful art and be at least marginally content with your life? I’m sure that even Elliott Smith wasn’t suicidal all the time, andbelieve meI know that Kerouac had plenty of exciting, life-affirming things to say. That is, I know that most art is not one-sided enough to be labeled merely “happy” or “sad,” but is, rather, the product of an entire spectrum of thought and emotion. And I’m not asking for everyone to start churning out their own versions of “Walking On Sunshine,” but what I am saying is that it would be nice to see and hear more artists whose art did not depend on their continued state of mental and emotional turmoil, if for no other reason than that I would like an example to follow.
This is where Devendra Banhart, a lo-fi, folksy singer-songwriter, enters the picture. His (and yes, he is a man, not in some coming-of-age or macho sense, just in the gender-confusing name sense) most recent full-length album, Rejoicing In The Hands, came out on Tuesday. It is full of light and, as the title would imply, joy. Banhart’s voice is quavery and tender, channeling both Bob Dylan’s shakiness and Jeff Buckley’s supported clarity. His is an ephemeral voice, and it accompanies the music perfectly in conveying a sense of how quickly these songs pass by. When first listening to Rejoicing, I found myself getting the first melodies stuck in my head, not because they are the only good songs on the album but because I was doing other things while listening to it. By the time I got back from the bathroom or finished ringing up a customer, I would be listening to the last couple of songs on the album.
Now that I have listened intently to the entire album, I realize that an intent listen is exactly what this album needs. Banhart did not get these songs stuck in my head by screaming at the top of his lungs; these are songs that I constantly want to replay to hear if he actually said what I think he said. They are songs that could easily fade into the background behind the mood they create, behind their sheer prettinessbut they deserve nothing less than our complete attention because of what we might miss.
The lyrics are where the aforementioned light and joy really shine through, and there are too many inspiring and wonderful lyrics to list in the space that remains. The fact that the liner notes actually call the album Rejoicing In The Hands Of The Golden Empress should give you some idea of the lyrical focus. Banhart’s lyrics are those of a minstrel in the shade attempting to draw his listeners’ attention to the light that surrounds them. They cajole (“Sing your song”), comfort both sincerely and humorously (“The body stays, and then the body moves on/And I’d really rather not dwell on when yours will be gone”), and they, well, they rejoice. In “This Beard Is For Siobhán,” Banhart sings, “My nose has froze, but I can keep on smelling.” This attitudea determination to convey a sense of excitement with lifepervades the entire album. Even better, he creates art that is both beautiful and decidedly not sappy.
Banhart lays his outlook right on the table with the first song, “This Is The Way,” when he sings, simply, “We had a choice/We chose rejoice.” Devendra Banhart is in no tunnel, and he is proof that there is beauty in the light. He may have a lot of convincing to do, but the power of his music to gently capture the listener’s attention makes me think he can do it. Having been frustrated by the reception to healthy, hopeful artists for a while now, I am glad to have found him.