Devendra Banhart has never been one to let anachronism, impossibility, nor absurdity interfere with his creative output. Whether crooning on 2005’s Crippled Crow about his desire to father “Chinese Children” on every continent, or “Shabob Shalom”‘s 1950’s sock-hop love letter to a Jewish cutie off 2007’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, the Venezuelan American songwriter has managed to keep his sound unique without coming across as trying too hard. Eccentric instrumentation, recurring thoughts, and otherworldly concepts just seem to find their way into his special brand of off-kilter, folksy freak-flamenco. His eighth studio album, Mala, although softer and a touch more dour than some of his previous offerings, proves that Banhart is still a strange fella leaving his mark on the world of popular music.
“FÃ¼r Hildegard von Bingen” stands as a signpost or perhaps a cautionary warning about Mala‘s surreal trip through time, space, and culture. This disjointed tale finds Banhart musing over the German-born, 12th century mystic Saint Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard, a prolific composer herself and inventor of new languages, was given to hallucinations and visions in which she received communications directly from God. She used these spiritual powers and the messages from an otherworldly pen pal to broadcast ideas well beyond her own congregation. In the song, Banhart imagines Hildegard escaping the monastic lifestyle and arriving in the present day as a video jockey on television.
The flood of interpretation from such a tune is akin to staring into a Salvador Dali painting for hours and trying to nail down a linear string of thought. The viewer, or listener in this case, must use the artist’s own inspirations as a diving board before taking a leap of faith into a murky sea of their own conclusions. It’s a tricky proposition for sure. But Banhart’s choice to place a melodic stress on the third syllable of each line, followed by a caesurae after the fourth harkens back to a poetic style utilized in Old Germanic verse. It’s subtle. But it’s also an ingenious example of an artist connecting with his muse by mimicking her ancient method of writing.
This is not to say that culling enjoyment from Mala requires dusting off pre-medieval tomes at the Germanic Studies section of your local college library. Perish the thought! The themes of “Your Fine Petting Duck”, for example, highlight the musician’s more approachable touch of whimsy and scoundrel-like take on the conventional heartfelt love song. The track guest stars Serbian artist and fiancée Ana Kras. The duo exchange jabs and pouty reconciliations over a failed relationship: “If he ever treats you bad / Please remember how much worse I treated you / If he doesn’t try his best / Please remember that I never tried at all.” Banhart has shared that “It’s so hard for me to write a sincere love song. It’s got to be about what a piece-of-shit relationship we’re in now, always, somehow . . . you have to keep a sense of humor about it.”
“Never Seen Such Good Things” keeps with this absurd, tongue-in-cheek style of anti-romantic facetiousness: “If we ever make sweet love again / I’m sure that it will be quite disgusting / Race to the end / Race to the end.” Not exactly the line one would write on the card taped to a sweetheart’s box of chocolates, but quite a relatable lyric nonetheless for anyone who has dealt with the guilt of letting things go too far with a former lover. On the closing track, “Taurobolium”, Banhart laments “I can’t keep myself from evil”. The song, loosely inspired by the ancient Roman practice of killing a bull over a grated altar so that the blood can rain upon a religious leader below, is a jazzy confessional full of snaps, falsetto, and an odd but desperate sort of self aware shame. Banhart’s final prayer of ”Keep me from the evil” ends the album and leaves listeners to reinvestigate the sins of a man who switches roles between demon and angel.
The album’s title and titular track also play with the dichotomy between hate and love, as well as good and evil. The word “Mala,” depending on how it is read, is either the feminine form of “bad” in Spanish or the Serbian word for “small,” which is a cutesy colloquial nickname given to significant others. Whether Mala is meant in the negative, the positive, or the obtuse is, once again, up to the listener. For just as Banhart is willing to dance like a vagabond minstrel through language (German lyrics included), so too is he able to saunter past antagonistic ideas and strange obsessions. His outlook is fresh and remains interesting. Mala may not stand as the zenith of the man’s catalogue, but it’s a highlight worth exploring and a dreamy journey for the taking.
Essential Tracks: “FÃ¼r Hildegard Von Bingen”, “Never Seen Such Good Things”, and “Your Fine Petting Duck”