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It’s the feeling you get when you find yourself somewhere that dances on the line between familiar and new. A sort of déjà-vu where you can’t tell if you’ve been here before in a dream or in reality. Sort of exciting but still strangely comfortable. This is Devendra Banhart’s newest LP release, Mala (2013). A touch of Spanish, a dash of psychedelic, a whisper of folk, and Banhart’s dreamy, reaching voice combine to create a solid, warm-weather album, subtly beautiful and atmospheric—one of Banhart’s strongest records yet.
A whopping eight full-length albums since his first LP, The Charles C. Leary (2002), Banhart is still quietly innovative, producing an organic, whimsical sound that refuses to be confined to the expectations of one genre. Lacking the self-aware, brazen pride that many artists adopt after years of critical success, Banhart’s Mala is a sweet, organic record, significantly more cohesive than more recent releases (namely, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (2007)). On this album, Banhart’s thoughtfulness shines through. His carefully crafted transition from one song into the next, along with the subtle shimmers of psychedelic influences that permeate the folk sounds help cement Mala as a more accessible album, promising to find more commercial success than previous releases.
“Golden Girls,” the opener, is a bare track with a haunting reverb draped across Banhart’s vocals as he repeats, “Get on the dance floor,” again and again. It’s an eerie song that peters out quietly before transitioning into the easy, nostalgic “Daniel,” a track that has a distinctly summertime feel to it with slight elements of bossanova. It calls to mind a simpler time, reminiscent of the 1960s. The 1960s influence is particularly strong on “Your Fine Petting Duck,” the female backing vocals, “Come back, baby, I never really loved you,” showcasing Banhart’s sharp sense of humor.
The psychedelic/electric element of Banhart’s sound is most apparent on Für Hildegard Von Bingen,” also the first single from Mala—an interesting choice for a preview of the record, as it is only indicative of a small part of Mala’s sound. Nevertheless, it is a more mature electronic sound for Banhart. While he has never shied from experimentation and instead embraced it without calling attention to doing so, innocently jumping from genre to genre, his previous efforts have occasionally fallen into sloppy territory. “Fur Hildegard Von Bingen” has a more refined sound, while Banhart’s signature, wacky lyrics tell a narrative of the Catholic saint who shares the title of the song breaking away from her convent to work for MTV.
For someone less experienced in genre-jumping than Banhart, it would be difficult to combine this myriad of sounds into a single, solitary album without faltering or sounding clunky, but Banhart is able to do it effortlessly.
“Never Seen Such Good Things” and “Won’t You Come Over” are the stand-outs on the album. It’s Banhart at his best, in all of his multi-faceted glory, combining acoustic guitar, electric guitar, synths, and other electronic elements, and, most importantly, Banhart’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics. On “Never Seen Such Good Things,” the sound of bubbling water and catchy, bright guitar riffs have this song sounding deceptively sunny while Banhart sings, “If we ever make sweet love again/I’m sure that it will be quite disgusting.” His subtle and sharp sense of humor slips in without drawing any attention, an unexpected delight. On “Won’t You Come Over,” Banhart is at his strongest vocally, with a rough, self-confidence peppering his voice.
The album is not without its missteps, though. “Won’t You Come Home,” is a meandering, dreamy track that is entirely forgettable and out of place on Mala, as is “The Ballad of Keenan Milton,” an instrumental track featuring only an acoustic guitar. “A Gain,” a strangely serious and dark song, is easily the most out of place and confusing inclusion on this record. At fourteen tracks, Mala could have afforded to exclude these songs and come out as only a more cohesive, thoughtful album.
As Devendra Banhart’s eighth LP release, though, Mala assures audiences that Banhart remains a musician dedicated to the art of exploration and expansion, never satisfied solely with what he knows, still finding new ways to infuse folk, nostalgia, and his own sense of humor.