This review was originally published on The Arts Desk.
Devendra Banhart has never been afraid to push boundaries and mix genres. Still, of all the ways the once-prolific songwriter could have chosen to return, releasing a dance album is surely one of the least likely.
It’s why “Golden Girls” – the dense, brief opener to the Venezuelan-American songwriter’s Nonesuch Records debut and first album in four years – is so surprising, with its repetitive “get on the dancefloor” refrain. The track is so ambiguous it could lead the rest of the album in any direction: in fact it leads to “Daniel”, the sort of ponderous, lo-fi waltz that wouldn’t seem particularly out of place on any of Banhart’s earlier releases. Although its conclusion, in which the storyteller is “waiting in line to see Suede play”, is perhaps as surprising in its own way for a song so languid as to be the opposite of the reformed Brit-rockers’ glamorous shtick.
The transition between the two tracks is at the heart of Mala, which is full of moments that seem set to go one way before branching in a completely different direction. Take “Never Seen Such Good Things”: it proves itself thematically the opposite of its title even before Banhart reaches the end of the first line, to say nothing of the magnificent couplet “if we ever make sweet love again / I’m sure that it will be quite disgusting”.
Its mischievous moments of brilliance – see also the oddly-titled “Your Fine Petting Duck”, a knowing breakup duet between the singer and his artist fiancée – brighten up an album which sometimes tries so hard to tell clever, surreal stories that it forgets to be fun. But at its best Mala is light-hearted or lovely, like on the Spanish-language “Mi Negrita”, or close-to-conventional love song “ Won’t You Come Over”.
GIG OF THE WEEK: It’s not until Sunday, but Rick Redbeard – still the architect of one of my favourite albums of 2013 – plays his biggest shows to date this week with support from Admiral Fallow’s Sarah Hayes. Tickets for his show at the CCA are £8 + booking fee in advance, or if you can’t wait that long you can catch the same lineup in Edinburgh tomorrow night. Redbeard also plays Aberdeen and Inverness this week, and further afield later – full details via Chemikal Underground.