Devendra Banhart, our favorite freak folk gypsy is back with his eighth record, Mala. In the four years between this and the generally underwhelming What Will We Be, Banhart has cut off his Russell Brand mane, gotten engaged to Ana Kras, and basically settled down. He returns with the full-length, which he describes as an album full of “almost-nihilistic, devoid-of-any-hope observations.” But you’ll find these pessimistic stories are encapsulated in lovely bottle of smooth aged sounds and gnarled vocal effects. The folk has left the freak. Or is it the other way around?
Most of Mala lazily shimmies around like water over a Koi fish, swirling without direction, falling over itself and catching drips of light. You can hear the consistent gentle tropical feel in the Spanish serenade, “Mi Negrita,” the cutesy “Won’t You Come Over,” and the instrumental “The Ballad of Keenan Milton.” The tracks drift and dance in circles with light acoustic guitars, cavernous yawns, and fading sound effects. It’s limber and relaxed.
There are also dips into darker moments, these “devoid-of-any-hope” moments like in the opening track, “Golden Girls.” A stripped down guitar and ghostly bass strings hauntingly menace, “get on the dance floor” repeatedly.
With Devendra Banhart’s reputation as an experimental artist, you might expect he’d feel threatened by his lack of success on his last album, and that he’d make some sort of wild statement of validity. Instead he delivers a solid, carefully crafted whisper of a piece. The highlight of Mala is the final track, “Taurobolium,” a jazzy confession of sins and sounds punctuated with snaps and falsetto “I can’t keep my self from evil.” Those high-pitched calls are somehow very natural and comfortable sounding, like his inner weirdo is alive and well, but maybe just settling down with his mala (sweet little thing).
Mala is available now via Nonesuch Records.