Listeners who fell in love with Devendra Banhart’s quavering vocals, spare finger-picking, and offbeat lyrics on 2004’s Rejoicing in the Hands were in for a surprise when the singer-songwriter began to swerve away from no-frills folk and into less predictable, far headier territory on subsequent releases. Banhart’s early work, DIY four-track recordings made while the singer was attending art school and busking on street corners, was revelatory lo-fi: The guitar lines occasionally dropped a note, Banhart’s voice trembled hesitantly, the lyrics addressed such subjects as little sparrows and beards. Those early songs contained enough tentative delicacy to satisfy fans of Iron & Wine and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, yet Banhart’s adventurous song structures and occasionally baffling titles (“Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artisan Mimicry”) suggested that some quotient of freakiness laid in wait.
On Mala, Banhart has excised much of the genre-bending experimentation that characterized and occasionally diminished his most recent efforts, opting instead for a sonically and thematically cohesive album that throws only a handful of curveballs. The general mood is post-breakup existential crisis, with songs ranging from playful kiss-off (“Never Seen Such Good Things”) to psyche-plumbing stoner nursery rhyme (“A Gain,” in which the singer worries, “Mama had such high hopes for me/Lover, don’t know where those hopes go”). A number of songs evince humor through ironic disjunctures between lyrics and instrumentation. Opener “Golden Girls,” for example, builds delicate layers of percussion and reverb over a low-key, fuzzed-out guitar line, while Banhart deadpans, “Young man, get on the dance floor.” If the song offers a less-than-ideal tempo for dancing, though, it establishes a playful, self-deprecating tone for the tracks that follow.
Banhart strikes his most graceful balance between palatability and eccentricity on “Your Fine Petting Duck,” which reformats the take-me-back love-song trope to delightful effect. Trading verses over a sluggish guitar shuffle, Banhart and a female singer (Banhart’s fiancée, visual artist Ana Kras) negotiate a strikingly reluctant sexual reunion. Kras makes the initial offer (“I’ll take you back/‘Cause I don’t really love him”) and Banhart replies by cataloging the ways in which he one-downs her current lover (“If he ever treats you bad/Please remember how much worse I treated you”). At the halfway mark, however, Banhart shifts into a tentative future tense, departs into German, adds some spacey synth beats, and then fades on the repeated line, “Yes I’ve been feelin’ it too.” This is Banhart at his cleverest, as each of the song’s tonal pivots enhances rather than distracts from the song’s story. Mala attests to a discipline that was absent in Banhart’s recent, loopier ventures, proving that his eccentric songwriting works best when harnessed in service of good storytelling.