Devendra Banhart is a bit of an odd fellow, and travelling through his discography, or just reading an interview with him, makes this perfectly clear. But this quality is good when you’re someone who still puts all their faith in the L-word as it adds a refreshing spin to a subject that’s been battered, bruised, and ripped apart until it’s lost almost any meaning it might have had to begin with. Sure, Banhart has birthed some egregious duds in his time, but his wry sense of humour combined with his fascination with falling in and out of relationships can (at the best of times) weave wonderful tales both of how great it can be and how it can all go so wrong.
Despite the fact that Banhart is now living with his fiancée Ana Kraš (who he asked to marry on the day they met, in true Banhart fashion) and would appear to be in a good place emotionally, his latest album, Mala, feeds from a trough of pessimism. Lead single, “Never Seen Such Good Things,” captures the mood of the album with its first line, which cleverly changes the mood expected from the song’s title by completing the sentence so it goes, “Never seen such good things go so wrong.” From there Banhart shuffles by with guitars and a stuttering drum pattern playing out in the background, wandering into one of his cheeky lines that he shouldn’t really be able to get away with, but does: “If we ever make sweet love again/ I’m sure that it would be quite disgusting.”
It’s “Your Fine Petting Duck” that takes centre stage on Mala, though. In it Banhart is joined by Kraš as she asks for him back while he reminds her of numerous reasons why they broke up in the first place. “If he makes you cry a lot/ Please remember with me you never stopped” sings Banhart like he’s seeing the absurdity in the situation. It’s fictional, sure, but they both play their roles well. Kraš in particular is a strange presence, sounding like a deadpan Victoria Bergsman–a playful take on female vocalists being brought into big budget pop songs that need an emotional pull and/or hook; in a parallel universe “Your Fine Petting Duck” is as big as “Love The Way You Lie.” Musically it’s a left turn, too, as it veers off into a modest disco beat via some Tarot Sport-esque burbling where Banhart and Kraš start singing in German.
Although Banhart has dabbled in plenty of other styles during his career, on Mala his genre-hopping is a lot more subtle, which makes the album feel more casual–but it does put more focus on moments like the aforementioned latter half of “Your Fine Petting Duck.” The album is predominantly led by acoustic guitars, and every so often a synth chord might create some background ambience (“Taurobolium,” “Cristobal Risquez”) or an electric guitar will protrude above the other instruments (“Won’t You Come Over?”). It would be easy to say Mala is a “return to form,” or something like that, but instead it feels like a product of its time–or of Banhart’s time, to be more accurate. It’s like a segment of his life, narrated and pondered over, from “Daniel” where he recalls “standing in line to see Suede playing” to the gentle and airy “Won’t You Come Home” which reads like a love letter sent to the world itself.
Mala might then be best described with a lyric of Banhart’s own writing: “It’s not the end of the world/ But it’s not the start of a new one.” It’s by no means a grand push forward (or away) from the excessive, disjointed What Will We Be and Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon which preceded it, but it’s a move into more comfortable territory. On Mala he certainly could have done himself some favours by trimming away some lesser moments (particularly the pointless minute long “Mala” or “A Gain”) but there’s certainly a sense that’s he gradually becoming more efficient with his song writing, as evidenced by “Never Seen Such Good Things,” “Your Fine Petting Duck,” or “Daniel,” which paint pictures of relationships come and gone without ever overusing lyrical space. What’s next for Banhart is a tough question, though, especially when he leaves the listener reeling with the curious final track “Taurobolium” where he sings in a needly, almost sinister voice, “I can’t keep myself from evil.” He’s hinted that next time around he might go for something to capture his current romantic state, but in Banhart’s world, that could mean anything. “Love, you’re a strange fellow,” he sings of “Never Seen Such Good Things,” which is true, and his similarly complex quirkiness makes them such a good couple. Just listen to Mala and hear for yourself.