Mala - NONESUCH
FILTER Grade: 84%
By Kyle MacKinnel on March 11, 2013
Devendra Banhart is fortunate in that his personality is preternaturally loud enough to afford his music the opportunity for mellower, sleeker portage without dissolving a sense of identity. Mala, his eighth album, reveals the former freak-folk chieftain and current major-label denizen coalescing a body of work around this advantage to the fullest extent he has to date. The subdued “Golden Girls” levies the opening charge: “You’re a young man/In a young man’s world/Get on the dance floor.” It’s delivered like a whisper to action, handed down in the style of an elder with a treasured piece of wisdom. Sound advice from a figure who has, for better or worse, never hesitated to put himself out there. But the dance floor is mostly a metaphorical one here, and what follows is more a stony Sunday morning, wool socks and coffee, curl-up kind of record amongst a few beaty, bloopy spurts of focused energy.
Sonically, Mala is molded with a certain kinship to 2009’s What Will We Be—Banhart’s first and only release on Warner Bros.’ eponymous flagship. But in this case, its predecessor’s malady of stylistic disparity has been curbed to the point of what feels like a cohesive body of work. Don’t get me wrong, the album is not without its trademark eccentricities: refer to “Mi Negrita” or “Your Fine Petting Duck” for multi-lingual folk whimsy in Spanish and German, respectively. The latter is also an ironic duet with Banhart’s fiancée, Serbian photographer Ana Kraš, pitting the pleas of an apologetic former lover against her coolly remorseless ex. The self-ascribed Arthur Russell influence is readily apparent on “A Gain,” and “Never Seen Such Good Things” melds into its synthesized textures quite well. His engagement to Kraš may be at the center of Banhart’s move toward tranquility (mala is a Serbian term of endearment), but even with a revolving door of beautiful women, settling down isn’t always such a bad thing.