Listening to Mala, Devendra Banhart's seventh studio release, is like peeking into the diary of a love-weary traveler trying to decide whether he wants to come home or run far, far away. The tracks evoke a push-and-pull of solitude and extroversion, comfort and experimentation, mourning and celebration, yet these dichotomies never seem jarring or even at odds with each other. Whereas on What Will We Be, Banhart seemed to know all the answers to life's existential puzzles, in Mala he turns inward and questions everything. His innovation and penchant for the theatrical may suffer slightly, but the quality of his unique brand of nu-folk does not.
Much of the album is steeped in feather-soft strumming, accented by bubbling toybox instrumentation, unexpected but immaculate harmonies, and a few home-recording background noises (the sirens heard in "The Ballad Of Keenan Milton" and the lo-fi rock of "Hatchet Wound" assure us that nope, he's still not in a recording studio). The highlights of the album are the bright folk jams with insecurity at the forefront. "Never Seen Such Good Things" has Banhart in his element, with deceptively soft vocals housing caustic lyrics: "If we ever make sweet love again / I'm sure that it will be quite disgusting / Race to the end / The mem'ry of a ceremony so / Empty, bitter, boring, and hollow." Ouch. "Your Fine Petting Duck" employs a unique song structure, with frankness and atonality that's reminiscent of Beat Happening balanced out with 50s pop sensibility. The back-and-forth between the narrator and his ex is enough to make it a great song; the funky sway is just a plus.
"Won't You Come Over?" sounds like Marc Bolan dropped acid and tried his hand at reggae, and "Won't You Come Home" may actually be a Yo La Tengo homage, with swirling, sliding guitars and muttered confessions performed in perfect Ira Kaplan style. Though these songs are stellar, I can't help feeling more satisfied with songs like the closer, "Taurobolium," where Banhart finds his own voice in glam folk jazz, singing about secret perversions. Maybe that should be a rule of thumb: if Devendra Banhart is combining at least three genres in a song, he's doing it right. On Mala, his voice will run the gamut from tentative whisper to glam shimmer to butter-smooth bass to doo-wop harmony in a matter of minutes, and none of it feels strained. Similarly, the tracks weave in and out of genres (and languages) in the organic fluency that's becoming Banhart's trademark.
Some may find the understated nature of this much-anticipated installment to be disappointing, but although there's no Led Zeppelin-level rock (remember "Rats"?), it seems like just the breather we needed. If What Will We Be was the soundtrack to a rapturous summer day, Mala captures the fall of the night, with all the self-doubt, mystery, and mischief that comes with it.