Devendra Banhart finds eccentric balance on ‘Mala’

Nolan Krebs

Fans of Devendra Banhart just have to deal with waiting around sometimes.

Banhart, 32, is both a renowned visual artist and musician with a delightfully eclectic and often carefree style of creation. Since his first album(s) in 2002, “The Charles C. Leary” and “Oh Me Oh My,” he’s won over audiences with that creative personality. However, it’s the same sort of personality where you get the sense, “This guy probably isn’t going to force his art and make an album when he doesn’t want to.” So with Banhart, you never really can tell what’s coming next, or when.

Since his debut into music, Banhart has released a slew of great albums. In 2004, Banhart put out both “Rejoicing in the Hands” and “Nino Rojo,” which had critics labeling him as part of the “New Weird America” genre or “freak folk.”

In some aspects, the tags stuck. His music comes across as very free-flowing and poetic; a lot of the time he’s fingerpicking acoustic guitar with a soulful edge and spouting off wonderful lyrics like, “Because my teeth don’t bite/I can take ’em out dancing/I can take my little teeth out and show them a real good time.”

Between 2005 and 2009, Banhart released “Cripple Crow” (2005), “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon” (2007) and “What Will We Be” (2009) — all of which were albums that did a lot of genre-hopping and freaked out some critics or fans that were looking for more straightforward gems. Regardless, Banhart got something of a bad rap from hype-machines like Pitchfork that seemed to brand him as “overrated” and out-of-focus.

So, here’s “Mala,” Banhart’s eighth album in his just-over-a-decade-long career. With the first taste, digesting “Mala” seems like it might be akin to a long, gloomy drive in the rain. The album cover is purple and blue, and opener “Golden Girls” starts things off with something of a melancholy pump fake. The feeling is one of a desperate beauty, with Banhart repeating “Get on the dance floor” in a cadence similar to a slowly dying machine, i.e. HAL being shut down in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The second track, “Daniel,” remains hushed but starts to open things up a little bit with jazzy snare brushes, while “Fur Hildegard von Bingen” flashes hauntingly eclectic and beautiful melodies through muted strumming and synthesizers.

It’s the fourth track, “Never Seen Such Good Things Go So Wrong,” that remind us the same playful dude is in there, still full of good spirits and wit. The song holds one of the albums most infectious little quips, as Banhart sings, “If we ever make sweet love again/I’m sure it will be quite disgusting.”

Having been raised in Venezuela, it wouldn’t be a Devendra album without a little Latin flair. Banhart switches to Spanish for the beautiful track “Mi Negrita,” complete with classical-sounding guitar and shakers.

We get a little German, too, on “Your Fine Petting Duck,” another album highlight. This track has Banhart and his fiance Ana Kras singing to each other in the roles of former lovers. The track starts off slow and jangly, and breaks into an Ariel Pink-ish electronic form about halfway through.

“Mala” is full of the same eccentricities that have always been a part of Banhart’s game, and it boasts the same robust and colorful feelings that his fans love him for. Those that never lost his trust will be pleased, and those returning after an absence will find a confident artist penning honest work.