A wilfully obstreperous artist stylistically, if not exactly sonically you’d be forgiven for thinking that Devendra Banhart’s eighth studio full-length – the title of which translates to adjectives ranging from evil to dreadful in Spanish – may make for an arduous listen. You hear of how it was, for the most part, put together by he and longstanding companion Noah Georgeson using recalcitrant equipment reclaimed from pawn shops, and you begin to fear the worst. Though Mala isn’t the tawdry, ragtag catástrofe the above may insinuate, for it instead derives its primary inspiration from Banhart’s now fiancée, Ana Kraš. Of Serbian descent, “mala” instead serves as a term of endearment out in the hostile easternmost reaches of mainland Europe that she calls home, and there are plenty of positives to be said of her precioso’s latest endeavour.
Mala does, nonetheless, make for a strangely loveless listen, taken into account its intimately amorous subject matter: Devendra exhales lethargic and sexless, “If we ever make sweet love again/ I’m sure that it will be quite disgusting” on the otherwise ebullient Never Seen Such Good Things, while album standout Your Fine Petting Duck develops on that same disaffected theme. A rambling get-out clause for a disintegrated relationship he’s never to rekindle that is here artfully relayed not so much as a duet, as a duel between he and Kraš herself, Banhart this time sardonically intones atop a wilting calypso acoustic: “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 with me you never stopped.” His tongue finds itself immovably glued to the inside of his cheek, one assumes though it still makes for his most ingenuous, and indeed with that ingenious piece since Cripple Crow highflier Chinese Children. It’s testament to this ingenuity that even an outré, techno-flecked German outro does little to diminish its brilliance.
There’s a timeless quality to it – raggedy as the ’60s incarnate; at once fresh and so too muggy as is a perpetually sunless attic – and it pertains quite transparently to the summertime disposition intrinsic to much, if not most of Mala. That it was recorded and compiled at home in Banhart’s now native L.A. likely vindicates its lax aesthetic, and adorable instrumental The Ballad of Keenan Milton is as though the insouciant dusting down of sooty nylon strings not even so much as seen for decades at long last exposed to Californian rays. Similarly, Won’t You Come Over – a ’70s sitcom jingle-cum-childlike Grandaddy jangle – finds Devendra’s head firmly rooted in yesteryears. Though as he ambles into this second half of the album in which we now find ourselves, there’s a sense he’s mellowing as he turns to sing – again delicately enwrapping his words in ambiguity – of a time at which he “used to live alone just counting the pretty little flowers on my dress/ Now I can’t wait to consecrate this wondrous mess.” Allegorical though its message may well be, the mind doesn’t have to stretch all that far to envisage a girlish young Banhart swept up in a paisley frock though there’s a palpable reluctance on his part to take to love as might a bird to the proverbial, and it can perhaps be accredited to its author sensing a discomfort in the comfortably smoochy situation he now finds himself cocooned in.
That these few can be so tightly lassoed together may of course intimate toward Mala being a cohesive beast though quite conversely, it’s a creature of momentarily jarring contradiction: the claustrophobic avant-garde instrumentation of A Gain, during which he laments of his mother having “had such high hopes for me” and the slippery space-western twangs of Won’t You Come Home appear incongruous things, whilst the gloopy electro bloops of Cristobal Risquez usher in a baffling interlude. So too, the rusty thunking of Taurobolium – throughout which Banhart ritualistically chants of an inability to keep himself from evil and warbles of “so much desire” as though bursting at the seams with the stuff – sits uneasy with the album’s otherwise largely placid charms.
Though if variety be the spice of life then this one, as an individual compilation, is pretty picante. And never is it more palatable than when Banhart returns to his mother’s tongue – that of that same Venezuelan progenitor to have dressed her cariño in floral smocks, only to have her high hopes apparently disappointed. Devendra has, however, maintained an admirably enduring amor for the Spanish lingo, with a varying quality reflected in his canciones españolas: whereas the lobby muzak of Brindo from What Will We Be was rather bad, the Ay Mama of Niño Rojo before it was mucho mejor. And Mi Negrita is a bold manoeuvre right up there with that there latter.
It makes for the most sentimental piece here collated, as he chirrups gleefully: “Feo amor, no necesito esperanza/ Ven amor aquí!” A damning indictment of the ugly, unknowable nature of love he renounces hope to instead embrace that most perverse of emotions. It’s something of a muddled message, which lucidly mirrors the uncertainties Banhart is seemingly feeling throughout like his now better kempt visage in a waterlogged mire. Whether due to his looming matrimonial union or otherwise, he sounds perturbed and slightly flustered, as he scuttles from one mood to another music. Yet ultimately, on balance his latest is more often buena than it is Mala and in his insatiable agitation, he gives us yet more to go for eternally. ¡Amén!
Released: March 11th, 2013 [Nonesuch Records]