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.
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.