Album Review: Devendra Banhart’s “Mala”

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Devendra Banhart has been coined the father of freak folk, and for good reason. Ever since 2002’s oh me oh My, Banhart has been known to frame strange lyrics in even stranger song arrangements, always unafraid to transcend genres, all the while wreaking hushed havoc with his beautiful finger plucking and his haunting, trembling voice.

Now, Banhart has returned three years after his last album What Will We Be (2009) with 2013’s Mala, expected by many to live up to his rep. But Mala is much more accessible, and in effect, less outlandish, than his past albums have been. He still has his unmistakeable edge that will no doubt either bewilder or inspire listeners who aren’t familiar with his past work, but he’s subtler now – his eccentricity is almost exclusively employed through the kitschy candidness of his lyrics (“Never Seen Such Good Things”) and the new, slight electronic influence (“Fur Hildegard von Bingen”). He doesn’t make a sporadic break towards a more alternative sound like he did in What Will We Be; rather, he remains mellow and breezy throughout the entirety of the album.

But fans who love the Devendra Banhart of 2005‘s Cripple Crow or 2004‘s Nino Rojo should not be disheartened: this newfound subtlety isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, it results in a much more focused album, allowing us to appreciate Banhart’s musicianship and lyrical prowess for what it is, instead of being thrown off by his past tendency to frequently switch genres at the drop of a hat – the exception is, however, “Your Fine Petting Duck”, which is as weird as Mala gets. But for most of the album, the easy, dream-like sound that Banhart does best is coupled with his clever, sometimes humorous lyrics. In Mala, Banhart seems to have found his niche.

So while the album is indeed much lighter, in both sound and sentiment, than any of Banhart’s past works, Mala is anything but lacking character. Banhart may no longer be as love-lorn or as wacky as he once was, but he’s still the king of freak folk. And despite his lack of the wild, long dark hair he once wore so freely, he still fits the crown.

Image Courtesy of observatoryoc.com, luxilluminates.com and last.fm.