I should have written this review a month ago. That's when I was first in the early, obsessive stage of listening to Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, blasting the impossibly addictive rock-out section of "Seahorse" and laughing my ass off during "Shabop Shalom" (as for why, let's just say that '50s high-school dance music never sounded this Jewish-or as camp). One memorable afternoon, as the late summer sun warmed the room and I sat blanketed in the album, the simple elegance of "Freely" rang true through my hazy hangover: "It ain't about losing your mind/but if you happen to, that's fine/but there's only one way to shine/and it's called trying/to live freely, freely, meu coracao/I'd like to live that way…"
But I waited. And something interesting happened: After years of critical praise, the tide has turned for Devendra Banhart. The early, high-profile reviews of Smokey have been weighed down with derisive shots at Banhart's image and commentary about a lack of focus and purpose on Smokey, including obvious points about the album's genre-hopping style and its nearly 70-minute length. I can't help but feel like these people are missing the point. That, and they must have really fucking boring personal lives.
The truth is, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is a cosmic American "White Album" for the 21st century. American because it's a tapestry of Caucasian, Latino, and Black styles. American because Banhart is still psychedelic, a state of being our country will always have a claim to. But the focus here isn't on the freak; it's on the songwriting. Banhart's strengths are his voice and his gift for pulling in the listener. Like the post-Fab Four did in 1968, he takes advantage of as many influences and styles as possible to write a voluminous cycle of songs that create a long-form transmission from the artist's life-the romance, joy, pathos, parties, break-ups, absurdity, and desire that still inform the best art.
The result feels like you've stepped into a party at Banhart's house in the hills of Topanga Canyon: Artists pass through, musicians stay for a while, everyone's a little stoned, a little high on wine, dancing, getting ecstatic, debating points of art and philosophy, and listening to a jam session featuring a lean, mean, enlightened house band. It's crazy one minute, self-searching the next. The production style places the album firmly in the last century: warm analog dominates, like field recordings made on an old tape machine at in some Brazilian village, a basement in upstate New York, or some burnt-out pop star's home studio in the Hollywood hills circa 1972.
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is the sound of an artist doing exactly what he wants to and nothing else. And perhaps this is what upsets the critics. It goes so far beyond any "sound" that it's laughable these people once called his music "freak folk." Each song on Smokey is a microcosm of the album's feel: emotive, soulful, and expansive, adorned with strings and mellow back-up vocals, spiked with percussion, softened with room echo, and led by Banhart's sometimes delicate croon that leaps into a deep, vibrato baritone when he gets wild. He rocks hard and screams harder on "Tonanda Yanomamanista," connects the dots between Zappa, Elvis, gospel, and LSD on "Saved," and makes the best use ever of the sound of a rope straining between a boat and a dock on "Seaside."
Touches like the sound effect on "Seaside" or the cavernous echo of "I Remember" are never gimmicks: Banhart and co-producer Noah Georgeson use every tone, instrument, and combination to bring these songs to life, from a pairing of strings and a soft, male chorus on the bridge of "Freely," that is as unlikely as it is strikingly beautiful, to the static-fuzz guitar riffing on "Carmensita," which sounds like a hot, sweaty night spent dancing and singing until the sun comes up. Appropriately the singer quips at the end, "Well, that felt better than the last one, that's for sure…"
This album does a lot of traveling; there's no denying that. It is nearly seventy minutes, features sixteen songs, and covers almost as many styles and genres. And you know what? My life has had thirty-two years, several phases, plenty of relationships, and countless soundtracks. At this point, I don't expect art to be a tight, flawless collection of work that stands up to a critic's gaze. There's nothing real about that. I want life to go from the bass-driven pop-funk on "Lover" to Spanish-sung introspection on "Rosa." I want the jubilant album to end with Banhart singing, "I'm gonna die of loneliness, for sure…" Why? Because that's what life is like. And if you spend five months working on a record with complete creative freedom, you're most likely going to create an authentic album that has no concern for either corporate-media rock critics or the marketplace. It will be an album for people who want to listen. And that's what Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is: an album for people. I can't think of anything more important.