Good for the refuge, and little else
Health food stores, Birkenstocks and incense are just a few things Devendra Banhart references when discussing his latest project, Refuge, produced with the help of producer and longtime friend Noah Georgeson. These are proper cues for an album as hippy as this – you can practically feel the patchouli emanating from their speakers.
The greatest inspiration behind Refuge is the new-age music of the 1980s, a subculture of love or hate that both Banhart and Georgeson grew up around. The New Age exists for purely functional purposes, intended to induce relaxation in listeners and sometimes to facilitate meditation. A lot of people despise him, even Georgeson himself did at one point. “Coming from an academically rigorous world, I rejected this kind of music because it is simple and gestural music,” he said. “It took me a while to get to a place I was okay with it.”
Thereby, Refuge exists primarily to foster a sense of comfort for the listener, and it achieves this with the help of misty synths, delicate guitars, and graceful flutes. But perhaps most revealing is the duo’s use of silence, as on “A Cat” and the cavernous “Three Gates”, both of which have a considerable amount of space. But they do not hesitate to go further by occasionally launching a melody. The loudest is played by a flute on “Peloponnese Lament”, and the next best is provided by a section of icy strings on “For Em”. Whether you need to focus on something or, in Banhart’s words, just want to “improve the mood and the environment”, this record will help you get the job done.
But if people are looking for a project that rewards active listening, Refuge falls a bit short. The album isn’t entirely devoid of bolder, catchier tracks, but there just aren’t enough of them to make the whole album stronger. You can’t really hit Banhart and Georgeson for that – after all, this collaboration is explicitly meant for relaxation and nothing more. Still, people feel that maybe they could have struck a tighter balance between the ignorable and the interesting.
On a positive note, the few highlighted cuts certainly stand out. “Into Clouds” is just one good example, with its unusually cold and choppy synth beat and watery electric guitar. But the best trail is the confusing and almost threatening “Asura Cave”. This track completely changes the album’s sonic palette, built mostly on cryptic field recordings, Buddhist chants, and distorted, shaky vocal samples. It’s all a bit unsettling, but it maintains an air of calm with airy synth lines and naturalistic sounds.
With this album, Banhart and Georgeson began to appease, and to appease. But that’s about all. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – this kind of music isn’t somehow illegitimate just because it serves a utilitarian purpose. But listeners who like their background music with some edge might want to pass it up, with the exception of a few tracks. Refuge is good for, well, refuge, and little else.