Every album has its own perfect listening experience. Whether it’s on the road with four of your best friends, or in the darkened corners of your bed on a Sunday morning, that moment will find you with every album when given the chance. Devendra Banhart has made a career of albums that seem underwhelming at first, before revealing their treasures when they’re good and ready. The side effect of this is that his albums can seem meandering or, frankly, aimless. The Venezuelan-American singer can get caught up in his own mind and talent, making music that makes sense to him in an obtuse way while not being awfully relatable. Mala has that problem, and, for the first time in Banhart’s career, it doesn’t overcome it.
That is not to say that Mala is an irredeemable album; in fact, at times, it can be a very enjoyable listen with tracks as strong as anything Banhart has done before. “Für Hildegard von Bingen” is a weird bit of Euro-infused pop that, as far as I can tell, is about a feminist who goes to work at MTV. It’s also catchy and breathy and functions well within the scope of the ‘freak-folk’ genre that is so often slapped onto Banhart’s work. “Hatchet Wound” sounds like what an Ariel Pink song would sound like if he had grown up in Texas as opposed to California; there’s a ruggedness to its summery vibe, provided by a strong and sandpaper-wrapped bassline and vocal filters left and right. Put another way, Banhart sounds like an insane bard, one who has stopped giving a fuck about what his audience has to say.
Alas, that is the problem with Mala; it is an album that seems to exist entirely because its creator wanted to make something for himself. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for a man whose songs are charmingly offbeat, it feels weird that he has put out a collection of songs so hostile to its listeners. There is no string to follow throughout the album, as every song seems to be carving out a theme before cutting off ⅔ of the way. He traverses English, German, and Spanish almost on a whim, but whereas that was endearing in the past, here it feels done with no purpose. Few tracks make an impression aside from “oh, this is happening to me right now,” and if there’s one crime worse than being bad (something Banhart is generally incapable of), it’s being boring.
The best example is the title track, which is sung in Spanish, and translated has Banhart singing “the time has passed, the time has passed, it’s time to accept it, it’s time to accept it.” It lasts a minute, teasingly spent with a slow swirling guitar that could have morphed into a proper tune given time to breathe and space to explore. Instead, it brings to mind its lyrics almost too literally: perhaps the time of Devendra Banhart’s worldly effervescent folk has passed, and if it means that he is happy working out his ideas on an album without ever reaching an end point, so be it. It would just be better if the ride was more pleasant for his passengers.