Given Devendra Banhart’s uneven career arc up to this point–from the scratchy bedroom folk of Oh Me Oh My…The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit and Niño Rojo to the fuller shadings of early pop explorations of Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon and What Will We Be–it really shouldn’t come as a surprise when I learned that his latest record, Mala, was recorded on an old pawn shop recorder. At over two decades old, “a lot of early hip-hop had been made on” the recorder, with Banhart and co-producer/guitarist Noah Georgeson “knowing my songs are not hip-hop whatsoever, we thought it would be interesting to see how these kinds of songs would sound on equipment that was used to record our favorite rap. Let’s see how this technology would work for us.” Somehow, against greater judgement, all of this still came as a surprise to me as I first dug into Banhart’s eighth studio effort.
I first listened to Mala on a walk–an endeavor strange enough in and of itself, made only stranger by the fact that intent of the walk was exercise and the locale my suburban childhood neighborhood. As I sweated my through layer after layer, the record (symbolically?) revealing itself to me layer after layer, that strangeness was not lost on me. Everywhere in the world someone was doing exactly as I was, though I was quite sure I was the only one listening to Devendra Banhart while doing so–certainly a fair wager to make on those I passed anyway. Aside from a comical logjam at the end of my walk, where, for a brief moment, myself, a cyclist and three side-by-side jogging soccer moms ran those streets, the only encounter I had was with an elderly gentleman and his toy-category dog (I’m unsure of what breed since it was at that last dark pre-sunrise hour when we choose to exercise so others don’t see how embarrassingly sweaty we are–but probably do because the street lights make our glistening foreheads glow). It’s up in the air whether he was rocking Devendra Banhart but his dish headphones with an antenna protruding from them implied talk radio. Anyway, he took off to the other side of the street upon seeing me, probably because at that dark hour we also all happen to look like cat burglars (especially the dog), or more likely because I was walking on the wrong side of the street–so I couldn’t tell what he was rocking. Banhart would agree this is the perfectly surreal atmosphere to first digest his records.
Later listens of Mala weren’t accompanied with such a unique cast of characters, but they certainly revealed more about the record and less about the neighborhood around me. The unique recording method is evident immediately; the organic sound of Banhart’s lone guitar and voice is enveloped with a buzzing ambient environment on the “Golden Girls” introduction, displaying the interesting balance Mala carries throughout–the natural and the subtly unnatural. Songs like “Für Hildegard Von Bingen,” “Never Seen Such Good Things,” and “Your Fine Petting Duck” have subtle electronic backdrops that, combined with Banhart’s playful folk foregrounds, stand out as some of his most unique work to date. The moment on “Your Fine Petting Duck” when a genuine dance beat proliferates from a minimalistic guitar line is certainly the boldest choice in a career full of bold choices, and the only one in which Mala felt appropriate as an exercise soundtrack.
“Your Fine Petting Duck” happens to also be the most entertaining track on the record. Banhart’s wit is as sharp as ever, duetting with his girlfriend Ana Kras on a tongue-and-cheek take on the “take me back” trope. Instead of pleading with Kras, Banhart does his best to remind her of all the reasons she left in the first place: “If he ever treats you bad, please remember how much worse I treated you / If he doesn’t try his best, please remember that I never tried at all / And if he makes you cry a lot, please remember that will me you never stopped.” Humor has always interjected itself into Banhart’s music, but his voice has never sounded more confident, delivering lines full of both snark and meaning. On “Never Seen Such Good Things,” Banhart bitingly notes, “If we ever make sweet love again / I’m sure that it will be quite disgusting / Race to the end, race to the end.” It’s hard to know whether to say, “Oh, snap!” or to just feel sorry for those involved; eliciting such a wide spectrum of feelings from a simple line like that shows how far Banhart has come as a songwriter.
In that regard, Mala is the record that Banhart has been meant to make, and one that feels like a natural destination–or perhaps stop along the path to its destination–of his evolving sound. It may not be his best record, but he has never sounded more comfortable. The wild experimentation of a record like Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon has been replaced with something perhaps more valuable within one of his records–a quiet place he can call home. As bluish hues began to poison the jet black sky on my walk that morning, with the front porch atmosphere of “The Ballad Of Keenan Milton” mixing with whatever sounds of the waking day were seeping through my headphones, the realization struck me that this may, in fact, be his best record–thanks to that comfort. It’s an accomplishment to make a record that feels like home to him; it’s a milestone to make a record that feels like home to listeners, and Mala does both.