You can draw some comparisons between the British-born rapper/hip-hop star M.I.A. and the Venezuelan-American singer-songwriter-cum-visual artist Devendra Banhart. Both are renowned for their hugely innovative and colourful work – breaking boundaries and intoxicating listeners with a heady blend of unusual instrumentations and direct, sticks-in-the-forebrain songs. Both released their last album in 2013 (M.I.A.’s Matangi and Banhart’s Mala – similar in name) and the two artists created incredible records – not quite up to their finest albums.
Wind things forward three years and M.I.A. has just unleashed AIM – a political but confused album that may well be her last hurrah. Some critics have been warmed to the innovation and deep songs – tackling the likes of immigration, government oppression and identity. Whereas M.I.A. might bow out with one of her weakest offerings – Banhart is back with one of his more notable records. The 35-year-old was raised by his mother in Venezuela and moved to California as a teenager; bringing the disparate landscapes and communities into his early music. In 2002, Banhart realised his debut, The Charles C. Leary, without much critical recognition and review. It stands as a curiously fascinating and unique creation.
Mala was celebrated – not as much as his finest album, Cripple Crow – and was noted for its lo-fi sonic template: Breathy synths. and dreamy riffs; nylon-string guitar flourishes and something quite bare but emotive. Perhaps more immediate and encompassing than some of his more widescreen and ambitious offerings: Mala progressed Banhart’s music and showed he was capable of changing dimensions without comprising quality and his distinct personality (and artistry). Anyone thinking Banhart has abandoned his wacky and spacey oddities have been given reason to cheer with the announcement of Ape In Pink Marble – the title alone provokes all manner of possibilities and beguiling images. The 13-track album was recorded, produced and mixed in L.A. and shows Banhart continuing to intrigue the audiences – the lyric “Love, don’t you worry/Even though it’s time to go/ There is no one that I love/and that no one is you”was leaked prior to release.
Middle Names beckons the listener in with plaintive, hallowed acoustics – lilting, sun-kissed and enticing. Banhart’s voice is tremulous and tender as he speaks to a lover – standing there “in front of the station” as the rain beats down with poeticness and potency. Blending shades of Kings of Convenience’s Riot on an Empty Street: All romantic, otherworldly and still. The album does not come in too intense: Instead, an accessible and gorgeous paen is uncovered and unfolds across multiple listens – one of the most precious songs on the disc. Good Time Charlie might speculate speakeasy establishments and ragtime dancing – it is another song that looks at love and seduction. Oceans, timelessness, and creation are brought in; giving the song a much wider remit than its predecessor. The composition is suitably more expansive, textured and variegated. Odd little notes and charming, off-kilter sounds give the song a certain strangeness: More of what one would expect from Banhart. One of the most idiosyncratic and incomparable songwriters in music: Good Time Charlie could not stem from any other artist. Jon Lends a Hand goes back into the Kings of Convenience/Nick Drake realm but has a more cosmic, direct and multifarious undercurrent. Banhart’s dedicated, keen voice pays tribute to a treasured sweetheart (“How very beautiful she looks today”) and someone beyond reproach. With many of Ape In Pink Marble’s songs: The compositions are inventive but never too weird; the vocal lovelorn but consistently strong and nimble; the lyrics less Byzantine and away-in-my-own-little-universe than some of his early albums.
Whether this is a more mature and, one might argue, conventional Devendra Banhart – it seems to work well and is more distinct than you’d think. Few modern artists could convey the same sentiments and expressions as Fancy Man. Starting as a funky, trippy little number: It sees Banhart greasing every palm “from A-Z” and on a mission. More personal than any of the previous numbers; the hero looks at his early life and transitions but has enough obliqueness to get the listener digging deeper. Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green – title of the year, perhaps? – sets Banhart looking at someone who has to go and is in a hurry: He wants to love her once more and say a proper goodbye. Not as sworded and smutty than one would imagine, it is actually one of the purest and most romantic songs you’ll discover on the album. The composition is particularly interesting and fuses space-age twinkles and lovely, floating synth. together with pattering beats. It is a pleasant and flowing song but perhaps does not distinguish itself too much from the pack.
Linda is a more notable song that develops from stately, haunted acoustics. Almost plodding and funereal in its pace: Banhart’s almost-whispered voice sounds incredible. The ‘Drake/’Convenience comparisons are quite apt here. It is a song that has the haunted spirit and hairs-on-end quality of Pink Moon-era Drake and the riparian, Nordic sentimentality of Kings of Convenience’s Quiet Is the New Loud. When Banhart is not at the forefront (vocally), the composition is always weaving, start-stop and unpredictable – at one point, guitar flourishes arrive in intervals and become further apart as the seconds unwind. It is the most unconventional and surprising song and shows Banhart has not lost his knack for invention and subversion. Depending on what you want from Devendra Banhart will affect your response to Ape In Pink Marble. Those looking for the Incredible String Band-via-Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band mash-up, freak-out will feel short-changed. Anyone preferring something placid, restrained and level-headed will also feel hard done by. What Ape In Pink Marble does is provides a more settled and easy-to-understand musician – a little less political and electioneering; more concerned with personal growth and love. Like Cripple Crow; Ape In Pink Marble is a fascinating animal possessed of vibrant tapestries, simplicities, and tender revelations.
Ape In Pink Marble is available from September 23rd via Nonesuch.