‘Ape in Pink Marble,’ Devendra Banhart’s ninth release follows the airy pop and genre hopping heard in ‘Mala’ (2013), but also draws on elements from his previous releases and subdues them into his most understated and elegant album to date.
Banhart’s first official release ‘Oh Me Oh My’ cemented him as an eclectic, authentic artist prone to simple, acoustic sounds. The release of ‘Cripple Crow’ in 2005 featured a more expansive lineup and tightly knitted, colourful texture. If an analogy were to be made, ‘Oh Me Oh My’ is to Cotton as ‘Cripple Crow’ is to a rainbow swath of Alpaca. And then came ‘Mala’ in 2013 and like old Goldi, the listener finds just the right amount of bounce in the bed of the album, its success stemming from the freedoms it takes. Similarly, ‘Ape in Pink Marble’ displays Banhart being less concerned with staying on the course of counter-culturism and shovelling units than with simply doing what he loves.
Like ‘Cripple Crow,’ Banhart’s new release takes on the duality of simplistic vibrancy. The cascading acoustic guitar, synths, and gentle percussion make for an easy yet engaging listen. While a cohesive meandering was found in ‘Mala,’ Banhart’s genre experimentation voiced through singular songs, ‘Ape in Pink Marble’ takes cohesion to a more atmospheric level, stacking layers of different sound in each song that domino throughout the album.
In an interview with The Frame, Banhart divulges: “…we created this imaginary scene to act as some kind of aesthetic guide to direct us in production.” Describing this “scene,” Banhart cites a dilapidated hotel in Tokyo. The wallpaper is peeling and the light coming through the dirty windows shows the dust in the air. The image engenders feelings of stillness, exoticism and yet familiarity. It is important to note that Banhart calls this an “aesthetic guide” for the album’s production, not it’s content. While less complex and surreal than in previous releases, the lyrics in ‘Ape in Pink Marble’ still don’t follow a concrete narrative. Rather, Banhart plucks at the elements of this “imaginary scene” and conveys them through sound.
The album opener ‘Middle Names’ recalls Banhart thinking he saw a friend (now deceased) at a bus stop, both wandering the city but unknowing of the other. It’s a somber and simple beginning where Banhart’s unstrained yet emotive vocals fly alongside ghostly synth and acoustic guitar, lullabying the listener into the dream world of the album. Here, the lyric “My love belongs to no one” resonates, as if exemplifying the personal triumph the album is as a whole. ‘Good Time Charlie,’ with more energetic guitar, wooden percussion, and quirky “la-la”s, foreshadows the gradual ascent into more playful songs like ‘Jon Lends a Hand.’ The self-aware cheekiness of the lyric “Oh, Jonathan/These are your ghosts/I’m borrowing them/Just to convey how very beautiful she looks today” is set up perfectly by the song’s intro. Detailing the sight of an unreachably attractive person, the guitar and vocals begin before heartbeat-claps and vibraphone come flowering in. The progression so perfectly fits the moment you can almost see the Flight of Concord boys crab-walking towards a sultry temptress. ‘Fancy Man,’ with its electro blips and jazzy guitar, reminiscent of Banhart’s poppy hit ‘Lover,’ marks a change in pace, but the sitar-like plucks and spacey synths fit cozily in.
Where Banhart succeeds in repurposing the album’s sound in ‘Fancy Man,’ he fails at the cliché disco beat of ‘Fig in Leather.’ ‘Fancy Man,’ perhaps generic for veteran Banhart lovers, is still universally enjoyable. Similarly, ‘Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green’ is so soothingly pleasant, one might forget all Banhart does to engender the feeling. The lounge music, Bossa Nova guitar, light drums, and twinkling synth fill the listener until they’re high, bloated with pleasure, and a grounding bass settles in. Banhart’s lo-fi vocals sound like he’s sitting beside you, on a beach, in a Woody Allen movie. While the home-spun vocals work here, they become muddy in “Lucky” where Banhart’s Lou Reed-esque, sing-songy vocals are unsupported by the light percussion and guitar. The end of the album continues to feel empty compared to the atmospheric gems that precede them. Songs like “Linda,” with it’s sparse guitar and hollowed out sound find the listener just as in need as the song’s lonely protagonist.
Although Ape in Pink Marble has its flaws, what’s most important is the sense that Banhart doesn’t care one way or another. Even with the incongruity that comes with tracks like ‘Fig in Leather’ and the comparable flatness of ‘Linda’ & ‘Lucky,’ the fact that the elements of beloved Banhart are all in place here is a success within itself.
‘Ape in Pink Marble’ is out now via Nonesuch Records.