Devendra Banhart is a bit of a relic of the late 2000s indie boom, and also probably the late 2000s freak-folk boom, but his brush with sudden exposure almost 15 years ago hasn’t stifled his output. In 2005, he released his breakthrough album Cripple Crow and along with Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois (2005), it served as a template for what so many acoustic and folk-tinged singers thought they had in them – if only they could get themselves a studio.
Banhart was smarter than that, he knew the work it took to get to that point. He had developed significantly since his first album The Charles C. Leary (2002), a hodgepodge of snippets of recordings that together made a sort of wish list for what would come later. On his next few albums, especially Niño Rojo (2004) and Rejoicing in the Hands (2004), Banhart fleshed out his songwriting and began to craft catchier and more evocative songs. Cripple Crow marked the moment his freewheeling style crested; he was able to develop his ideas into memorable passages that more or less stood on their own even outside of the album (something he has struggled with ever since), while maintaining the lax strung together vibe that he typifies.
Banhart would soon release clear spiritual successors to Cripple Crow, and those albums similarly played with genre and his versatility as a performer without feeling too self-conscious. But as Banhart’s fans grew older and the 00s ended, Banhart began a minor reinvention. By 2013’s Mala, he had cut off his long hippy hair and scraggly beard in favour of a hipster-do and well-kept beard. The album itself showed a marked maturity, even if Banhart was still struggling with his quality control. On 2016’s Ape in Pink Marble, Banhart wrote some of the prettiest sounding songs of his career, but failed to make an album that left more of an impression than mood music. Unfortunately, in a way he’s carried some of those same issues into 2019.
Ma is an improvement to be sure, but it does have a very discernable connection to Ape in Pink Marble. With that album, Banhart found a way to make the cold and somber synthesizers feel unexplainably warm, even when his touch felt more alien than human. Ma is still inviting thanks to Banhart’s soft vocals, his employment of denser instrumentals, and the songs for the most part remain melancholic, but the entire album feels more like a re-do.
Album opener “Is This Nice?” does a great job of setting the stage with its pretty, at times almost schmaltzy delivery, but the track, like most here, has so much more going on below the surface. There’s a pulsing rhythm that keeps the song from ever feeling too comfortable, helping to build the tension during the verses, while letting the chorus belt out its sweet nothings. It fits in perfectly with the collection of songs that make up Ma.
“Kantori Ongaku” follows, with an upbeat pop strut that functions as both a relief to those who turned their heads at Ape in Pink Marble and as a tribute to Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono. Another possible tribute – “Memorial” is a somber cut that more than evokes Leonard Cohen’s great “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” (1967) in the best way possible. The song manages to live on its own here despite the heavy similarities and even does its job of adding the necessary weight to Banhart’s lyrics. Next, “Ami” provides one of his more memorable tracks here and one that has some of his best vocal melodies on Ma.
Throughout the album, there are a few tracks that feel undercooked. “My Boyfriend’s In The Band”, “Now All Gone” and “Taking A Page” feel like musical snippets stretched out to three or four minutes, and pale in comparison to some of Banhart’s stronger whimsical detours from the past. “Carolina”, “Abre Las Manos” and “October 12” on the other hand take their simple nuggets of a song and leave them on their own, as short little moments of charm. It does help that with these tracks Banhart sings in Spanish, diversifying the album and keeping them from feeling like filler.
Coming in at the very end of the album, Banhart’s “Will I See You Tonight?” concludes with a duet between him and the criminally overlooked and consistent collaborator Vashti Bunyan. It’s a rumination on living with regret and without love. It brings a satisfying heartbreak to the end of an already emotive album.
Devendra Banhart has spent years quietly making some of his greatest music and Ma just adds to his already dense oeuvre. After the misfire of Ape in Pink Marble, it’s extremely comforting to see him back on track and with an album that feels like such a measured improvement. Is Banhart ever going to release an album that sounds like the music he made in his 20s? No, but that’s because he’s not trying to. Earlier this year, he released a book of poetry entitled Weeping Gang Bliss Void Yab-Yum. The publisher describes the poetry as his “most personal work yet” and it probably is, but that only adds to the power of Ma and more importantly to Banhart not going anywhere.
Ma is released Friday 13th September via Nonesuch Records.