Mala (Nonesuch Records) expresses an entire career of learning a highly sought after skill: smooth, easy intricacy; natural-sounding beauty. How can an album sound so simple and be so moving? Effectual elements are a breed of their own in every musical circumstance. From start to finish the album sounds wholistic, deep, uncontaminated and mature. Ridding the extremist outliers, Mala centers on soft effects and warm tones to create a chorus of old and fresh sounds. In a recent Interview with Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal, Devendra Banhart states “I don’t know if I like the music I make, but I certainly love making it.” This illustrates a very sensible conclusion- joy from process rather than presentation is one of the keys to an unpretentious sound- an ambiguous but worthy characteristic that begs to be noticed of Mala.
Commonly dubbed as freak folk- a genre defined by immoderate, wavering voices and unconventional folk tangents- Devendra has always written music with rougher edges. Although his chord progressions and strumming style are often simple or plain, his music is anything but. Lyrics are characteristically trippy and poetic, abstract and fully credible for ‘New Weird America’ tags. Mala’s high production value is not unlike 2009’s What Will We Be, however it clearly differentiates from his five releases prior.
He began his career as a busker in San Francisco and continued to travel and perform, opening for Sonic Youth’s 2000 European tour shortly after. A glance at Devendra’s artistic repertoire shows he embraces travel and cultural immersion. Most apparent in Mala is the exploration of his Venezuelan ethnicity, heard both in his occasional Spanish lyrics and acoustic-salsa additions. “Mi Negrita” is an alluringly sultry and subdued sonnet featuring the beloved vocal authenticity heard on his earliest recordings. The intermission-esque title track appears halfway through the album, featuring a short Spanish verse over minimal electric guitar distortions.
Mala explores a more dynamic level of soothing with a few standout tracks. “Won’t You Come Over” has Bob Marley goodness inside it. Innocently poppy, positive rhythms and a throwback to 2006’s Islands indie-pop era connect it to a promising audience of nostalgic twenty-something romantics. Gentle and dense, the hazily recorded “Daniel” is brimming with thick base and a slow rhythm. It feels sad, which doesn’t necessarily mean it is- a bonus realization for listeners of every caliber.
Sharp strings and “freak folk” dissonance give “A Gain” a human improvisational sound akin to Oh Me Oh My (2002) fan favorites “Michigan State” and “Pumpkin Seeds”: “Lover’s gonna tell me love don’t last, Mama’s gonna tell me I ain’t high class. Mama’s gonna tell me the world I thought was the world is not the world; Love is gonna make me a hungry man.” “Won’t You Come Home” is another example of Devendra’s clever bite lyrics, androgynous and verbose and creatively dark: “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?”
A musing Devendra draws attention to the 11th Century German Catholic composer and philosopher Für Hildegard von Bingen with a song of her same title, inviting a thoughtful and light jam that fades away before it even seems to begin. “Your Fine Petting Duck” is a transitory track- changing forms within- acting almost as a reflection of Devendra’s evolving music styles. It’s about a man receiving a call from a former love in desperation of more, and him letting her go, reminding her of his flaws. It’s about being a selfless man. The second half continues into an electronic drive with a more enthusiastic form of the same vocals, tallying to be the most critiqued track on the album for this surprising stray.
Perhaps this surprise acts to separate those who support artist growth from those who only wish for more of what they know- a powerful, tough chunk of meat to chew on next time you ponder the many ways to appreciate a musician and their work.
Devendra Banhart - Mala tracklist:
- “Golden Girls”
- “Für Hildegard von Bingen”
- “Never Seen Such Good Things”
- “Mi Negrita”
- “Your Fine Petting Duck”
- “The Ballad of Keenan Milton”
- “A Gain”
- “Won’t You Come Over”
- “Cristobal Risquez”
- “Hatchet Wound”
- “Won’t You Come Home”