Devendra Banhart, Mala

Dan Hyman

By Dan Hyman

Contributor
on 03.12.13 in Reviews

Mala

Devendra Banhart

In the near-decade since Devendra Banhart released his third album, 2004′s Niño Rojo, the intriguing, free spirit balladeer has laughed in the face of genre confinement. Emerging in the early-aughts as the focal point of the then-burgeoning freak-folk movement, the Texas-born Venezuelan fought restriction with each successive album: Meander alongside him, he offered, down patchouli-scented paths strewn with jazzy asides, sitar-slathered daydreams, acoustic-flecked British folk and Brazilian Tropicália. These were albums stocked with vivid, largely sprightly tunes, but also lacking a discernable thread to mend the stitches.

Sizing up love’s cruel ways with humor, wisdom and splendor

Mala, Banhart’s seventh album and first for Nonesuch, is, on the surface, no less diverse than its predecessors (there’s still a slew of genres here). Thankfully though, it’s far more succinct. Throughout, Banhart sizes up his favorite topic — love’s cruel ways — often in less time than it takes to create an online dating profile. He may be engaged, but the singer/songwriter still possesses a tarnished heart: “Daniel,” slow-rolling and sticky with tape hiss (and a Suede reference), disassembles a relationship in just over three minutes; elsewhere Banhart needs only a few words to size up the topic (“love yer a strange fella”), as on the tribal-stomping album-highlight “Never Seen Such Good Things.”

Even at his most obtuse, Banhart has always infused humor into his creations. At times here it works splendidly: On “Your Fine Petting Duck,” the whimsical duet with his fiancé Ana Kras, he plays an ex-lover reminding his partner how miserable he once was. “Fur Hildegard Von Bingen,” however, while intriguingly sly and slinky, is a stretch, even by Banhart’s out-there comic standards: You try envisioning a German medieval feminist as a MTV VJ. Then again, such is Banhart’s self-carved trail: Take it far enough and, detours be damned, you’re bound to find intermittent wisdom and splendor.