In the three years since he released Mala, more and more artists have found space for themselves in the surrealist, freak-folk world Devendra Banhart has inhabited for over a decade. Smartly, instead of trying to shout over the din of a packed room, he dials things back, and Ape in Pink Marble feels inviting and intimate, if a bit somber.
In an interview with The Current, Banhart downplayed the notion that his music had evolved, but acknowledged that while he may be using the same tools, he is using them to explore new ground. “There’s still a lot that’s been left unturned”, he said. “There’s still more mystery to dive into. It’s like a big cave and I’ve still got the same flashlight that I’ve been exploring that cave with".
The album is one of his sparsest, most tracks subsist on little more than Banhart’s vocals and a few lines of intertwining guitar. Single “Middle Names” is truly bewitching, a tribute to the lingering feeling of missed connections written about his friend Asa Ferry, the singer of Kind Hearts and Coronets, who passed away last year. The guitars sweep along the mix dutifully, but Banhart’s voice is mesmerizing, and his delicate intonation says as much as his atmospheric lyrics. It's a stunning track that beautifully captures a sentiment often difficult to evoke.
The subtle percussive tick on “Jon Lends a Hand” keeps the cascading patterns of guitars, keys, and vibraphones in check and give the track’s sweet sentiment some spine. On a record as immediate as Ape in Pink Marble a simple kick makes a world of difference. The same is true on “Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green”, where the distorted hi-hats take on the quality of falling rain, and the intermittent bass thump keeps the ephemeral instrumental from lifting fully off the ground.
The two broadest, largest tracks on the record don’t entirely succeed, albeit for different reasons. The satirical narrative of “Fancy Man” is equal parts sharp, dry humor (“I come from a long line of people who’ve never waited in line”, “I rode a gift horse into town / Free subscriptions all around”) and nonsensical phrases that don’t quite land (“I’ve got a dumb dance inside my pants, man / I’ve watched all the latest shows on bing-bong”). The rest of the instrumentation takes a bit of a kitchen sink approach that conceptually works with the idea of vast wealth and greed, but some of the individual elements come off as harsh and distracting.
The glitzy strings on “Fig in Leather” are a fun diversion, and the track’s humorous chivalry is reminiscent of vintage Flight Of The Conchords, but it feels like a flashing neon sign amid a collection of much more muted hues.
“Saturday Night” expertly tucks a haunting chorus into a fuzzy instrumental that captures flawlessly the hazy hung-over ruminations of Sunday morning. “Please don't love me because, don't love me because / You're through hating you”, Banhart implores.
Lyrically, Ape is among his best records, even with a few missteps on tracks like “Fancy Man”. He nails down a very particular brand of social anxiety on the bluesy “Lucky”, admitting, “Me, I don’t want lots of people / Me, I don’t want none”, and dabbling in something resembling political commentary on “Good Time Charlie” without betraying his commitment to introspection. “Me and my police mind, pulling over everyone we can”, he sings.
Even compared to other folk artists, Banhart always manages to feel unbelievably present, like he’s performing in the next room over. That quality makes Ape in Pink Marble a truly strong record, one that’s worth a spin even for those who agree with Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) about Banhart’s discography.