To me, it always seemed like Devendra Banhart was participating in the kind of “golden age” revivalism that can be a huge musical turnoff in modern acts. Though his aesthetic source seemed to be the psychedelicism of the late 60s, as well as its harder-edged South American counterpart – tropicalismo – to me there was always very little separating Banhart, as a revival act, from a band like Oasis (my nomination for the worst band of all time). But if 17 year old me didn’t give Banhart a chance on the grounds that I couldn’t appreciate the explicit silliness of naming a song “The Beatles”, then 24 year old me is certainly willing to make up for it – and Banhart, for his part, seems to have met me halfway with Mala. Mala is the kind of album whose marginalized, cafe pop sound will disappoint fans of Banhart’s earlier, grander work, but it might actually be his strongest record to date.
Musically and aesthetically, Banhart reminds me of the similarly hirsute pop singer Dan Bejar (of Destroyer and New Pornographers fame). On “Your Fine Petting Duck” Banhart seems eager to channel the synthy coke-wave of Destroyer’s Kaputt record, and Mala stands in relation to Banhart’s earlier, folkier career in much the same way that Kaputt does to Bejar’s. But where Destroyer has always existed in the realm of some very Canadian indie-pop sensibilities, Banhart often wanders pretty far south for inspiration. Banhart, who was raised in Venezuela, dips in and out of cooing spanish vocals throughout Mala, though the album’s latin influences are never more apparent than on the instrumental track “The Ballad of Keenan Milton.”
“Won’t You Come Over” is a pop highpoint that feels almost obligatory and forced, giving the impression that this is a song which will ultimately overstay its welcome on a Spotify playlist. But the song is undeniably good – perhaps even flawless in its execution – and it quivers along between “My Girl” and Os Mutantes, while showcasing Mala’s most hopeful – and most joyously lovelorn – lyrics. There is definitely an unevenness to Mala, and though the album’s fractured aesthetic is probably deliberate, it is not necessarily earned. The needlessly bleak “A Gain” just doesn’t seem to fit with the almost Vampire Weekend-sounding “Cristobal Risquez” or the Beat Happening styled “Hatchet Wound” (another highpoint). Though all the songs on Mala may make similar points about love (the unrequited kind, mostly), they’re divided – disastrously – by tone and recording technique.I also never noticed how similar Devendra Banhart sounds to Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, and the squawk box vocal recording that appears on most of Mala exposes this comparison to unnerving effect.
Banhart is moving forward with his music: one questionable step at a time, but certainly in a positive direction; all while capably utilizing a blend of antique folk-pop and modern dance music that has turned disastrous for many of his contemporaries (see: popular indie music, 2010-present), to boot. Though less a visionary than a polite – and sometimes adorable – charlatan, Banhart is a capable songwriter and a more than capable performer whose latest album should fit nicely into an already deep canon.