Indie-hippies, rejoice – Devendra Banhart’s eighth record, Mala, has arrived. As with past efforts, the 31-year-old SoCal via Paris via Bay Area via SoCal via Venezuela troubadour is still mishmashing an array of old-timey genres, but they’re more cohesive than past efforts. It all works pleasantly and inoffensively – there’s less “freak” in his folk, and only a few misses.
Mala, inspired by a Serbian colloquialism for “sweetie pie,” finds Banhart in solid form as wordsmith, utilizing whimsy, pointed imagery, irony and plenty of Romance languages. Just as he fuses international folk melodies with Americana and doo wop, plus the occasional synth, he also combines traditional lyrics with graphic, sometimes bleak metaphors in true Mangum style. Take this switch from rock-and-roll to rubble and back from the pre-chorus of “Won’t You Come Over:” [LISTEN]
Now shake it up, baby, twist and shout
We’re war-torn buildings, all bombed out
Love, not unlike I got drunk, pissin’ the night away
Love, not unlike
Not all his messages are dark, though. As mentioned earlier, Banhart employs plenty of humor on this album as well, such as the unabashedly silly ode to vaginas, “Hatchet Wound” [LISTEN], or the couplet “If we ever make sweet love again/I’m sure that it will be quite disgusting” in “Never Seen Such Good Things” [LISTEN]. Still, even his humor veers towards gloomy, such in his twist on the lullaby “Hush, Little Baby,” “A Gain:” [LISTEN]
When the Saint’s marchin’ to the W hotel
Mama’s gonna buy me new hair gel
Lover’s gonna tell me love don’t last
Mama’s gonna tell me I ain’t high class
Lover’s gonna be a long lost biological father
Lover’s gonna give me the worst day of my life
Mama’s gonna tell me the world I thought was the world is not the world
Other standouts include the two waltzy, finger-picked French-bistro ditties “Daniel” [LISTEN] and “The Ballad of Keenan Milton” [LISTEN], the former of which includes the one-liner “I held a rose/You held who knows.” Perhaps most satisfying is that Banhart still isn’t afraid of the under-two-minute interlude, adding a refreshing change of pace.
“Won’t You Come Home” made for a particularly great case study – it’s like a repurposed version of “Turtleneck” by Bosnian Rainbows, displaying the difference between these two artists: Bosnian Rainbows is about the jam, and Banhart is primarily a lyricist. While “Won’t You…” doesn’t develop the audio intrigue of “Turtleneck,” the latter doesn’t match Banhart’s lyrical punch: [LISTEN]
Won’t you come home, I surrender
I miss my sweet bag of bones, drunk and tender
Why don’t you want to stay here, suspended
In the dead arms of a year that has ended?
On the flipside, Bosnian Rainbows couldn’t have possibly concocted Mala’s trainwreck, “Your Sitting Duck.” Banhart’s fiancé grates some tone-deaf vocals which are painful instead of cute, and the random mid-song switch to pseudo-techno doesn’t help: [LISTEN]
However, it’s one of very few misses on Mala, which pairs its lo-fi production with Banhart’s voice to provide an overall sonic equivalent of an Instagram filter – comforting and familiar, like baking in either the Midwestern or South American sun. Like the app, it has its time and place.