Furnished with the kind of ethereal, intangible brilliance which only ever seems to reveal itself in small bursts, Devendra Banhart stands as one of few truly unpredictable, unique talents working today. The Venezuelan-American is possessed of a sometimes quizzical, sometimes whimsical, sometimes poignant lyrical mind, and on Mala, his first LP release since 2009, there’s vocal talent spread across multiple styles and three languages.
Despite its sprawl, Mala is, if nothing else, singular. If another record as wildly far-reaching as this is released in 2013 it would be a minor miracle; crossing folksy charm with old French chanson (in a style a little reminiscent of Beirut’s The Flying Club Cup) and electro experimentation with yearning, lyricless acoustic guitar tracks, it’s chock full of ideas and invention. The unfortunate thing is that its transient musical nature leaves you feeling a little disorientated rather than moved.
‘Your Fine Petting Duck’ is a perfect encapsulation of the myriad strands Banhart is trying to bring together on Mala. It begins with a slow, military drum beat and discordant, almost weary, female vocals. Banhart then humbly wishes a former girlfriend well with a new lover – “And if he ever is untrue/Please remember I was too” – alongside a soft, sparse electric guitar riff. Then, as the song seems to be drawing to its logical conclusion, a beeping synth chimes in, and the entire track flips into a fully synthesised number with Banhart singing in (what I think is) German. To describe this change as a shock to the system would be accurate.
On the one hand, this could be considered refreshing and innovative, but on the other it’s a little grating and, whatever its intention, comes across as undeniably pretentious. The first half of the track has a flaw or two but is eminently enjoyable, only for it to then inexplicably change costume entirely halfway through, like an unconvincing Shakespeare actor playing multiple parts but clearly only enjoying one of them.
Coupled with tracks like ‘A Gain’ or opener ‘Golden Girls’ – both of which aim to be short, spectral quasi-poems but fall somewhat short – there’s an over prevalence of changes at play which mean Mala feels decidedly uneven when considered as a whole.
However, all of this is not to say it’s without merit, nor at times very enjoyable. ‘Mi Negrita’ – in Spanish, for those scoring languages at home – is a charming short traditional number and highlight ‘Won’t You Come Over?’ is born of a toe-tapping backbeat and an offbeat guitar riff spliced with a 1990s keyboard-and-drums chorus. ‘Never Seen Such Good Things’ is another enjoyable entry, a winningly simple arrangement headlined by a couple of delicious guitar melodies at the end of the chorus, and ‘The Ballad of Keenan Milton’ is a neat acoustic number that wouldn’t sound out of place on a (good) Jack Johnson album.
Yet all these parts do not equal a satisfying whole, and Mala calls to mind Rachel’s infamous half-beef-half-pudding “trifle” from Friends more than a three-course delight from Masterchef.
In fact, the two albums which sprang to mind whilst listening to Mala were Sufjan Stevens’ sublime The Age of Adz (which quality-wise is streets ahead of this and most other records, but contains the same unpindownable excellence that Mala shows in spurts) and Feist’s Metals, another exercise in genre cross-pollination encompassing both broad musical brush-strokes and nuanced, vulnerable whisper-like tracks.
These two albums are themselves very different, and herein lies the central problem with Devendra Banhart’s latest record; there are moments to savour, but for each of these there’s at least one frustrating or disappointing moment to counteract it. Much like the sequel to a film you adore, the brilliance of the existing known quantity only serves to further highlight the unevenness of its successor.
So it is with Mala.