It seems like a contradiction to suggest that someone who creates experimental, eclectic, hipster psych-folk music is getting “focused.” The whole idea seems to fly in the face of a musical style bent on expansion and exploration. But it’s simply the best way to describe Venezuelan singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart’s latest release Mala—and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, this sense of focus is what makes this Banhart’s best work in years.
Don’t get me wrong about Banhart—he’s always been good at what he does, and as a whole underrated as an artist, in my own humble opinion. It’s just that his earlier work is so across the board that it comes across as a bit manic, if not ADD. Not a complaint, just something you have to get used to about him.
But with Mala, we hear a more relaxed Banhart, one who has settled into more of a groove. Perhaps his relationship with artist Ana Kraš has something to do with it (the title Mala is a term of endearment in Kraš’s native Serbian). At any rate, while this music is still fringe enough to be interesting and captivating—clocking in at under 50 minutes, these 14 tracks all feel like they belong together, rather than tossed all over the board.
One side effect of this relaxed approach is that the overall mood is lighter, and Banhart’s wry sense of humor is able to come out a little more easily. It’s apparent that neither Banhart, nor this collection of songs, takes themselves too seriously. Take, for example, “Your Fine Petting Duck”, in which Banhart enters into a lighthearted fictional banter between estranged lovers with fiancé Kraš, whose out-of-tune singing lends a measure of frivolity as Banhart quips, “If he ever is untrue / Just remember I was too…and so much more so.” This is also the sense of humor that causes Banhart to refer to mystic Hildegard von Bingen as “workin’ at the station / as a VJ on rotation” on “Für Hildegard von Bingen”. Still subtle, but adds to the overall lightheartedness of the album.
If a lover is a muse, then apparently Devendra Banhart has got him a good one. Mala is a solid listen, definitely one for the collection. If this girl had anything to do with this album, she might be the best thing that’s ever happened to him.