As his previous eight albums reveal through brief glimpses into the man’s twisted mental playground, Devendra Banhart is a strange woodland creature who forages for twigs in the underbrush amidst nonsensical ramblings about sexy man pigs. These are the facts. So as the masks keep falling to the ground, album after album, it’s slowly becoming apparent that Banhart may actually just be (a decidedly hairy) human after all. This is revealed through his latest jaunt, Mala, where most of the eccentricities of previous works are set aside in favour of straight up, no-nonsense quality music.
Indeed, one of the first notable things about Mala is that it’s undeniably catchy, almost irritatingly so. From the simple lone guitarist pluckings to the crowded full-band tracks, this album is littered with finger-clicking, toe-tapping, and possibly even knee-slapping splendour. Banhart has always had a knack for delivering captivating music, but this record is so darn melodious and just … bloody pleasant that you might actually close your laptop and look out the window for a while. If you see strangers hugging on the street, then chances are that at least one of them has recently listened to ‘Never Seen Such Good Things’, one of the album’s early uplifters.
Aside from the obvious lack of lyrical madness, Mala also offers a couple of indistinct changes from Banhart’s older material. Firstly, there’s some light tickles of electronics throughout the album which hug the tune’s folky main components quite nicely. It’s only when these digital aspects take the helm that the proceedings start to rise in absurdity and generally wane in quality, as seen in ‘Your Fine Petting Duck’ – the last few minutes of which sound like a forgotten Nena B-side and generally sticks out like a sore arse. Secondly, Banhart has abandoned his trademark sheeplike warble for the most part, except for on ‘Won’t You Come on Over’ where he can’t seem to contain his little quivering vibrato.
The reason Mala is so good is because it employs subtlety at every junction. While offering you everything it manages to avoid overloading the listener at any point. All at once, it’s psychedelic without being dated; it’s sentimental, minus the tackiness; wholesome, without making you want to get sick on the nearest vegan mandolin player, and it’s catchy, but not even slightly repetitive. This is definitely his best work since 2005’s Cripple Crow.