Devendra Banhart, the esoteric Venezuelan singer-songwriter that a small community has come to know and love, has exchanged the jubilant bells and whistles of his 2016 Ape in Pink Marble for a stripped-down sound. On his 10th album, Ma, Banhart brandishes the basics: simpler acoustics, clean lyrics and vital life lessons.
When listening to Ma, it might sound as though Banhart has hit his midlife existential crisis. Singing of the complications of life and stints of unrequited love seems to present the eerie tone of a 38-year-old man reflecting on life’s little disappointments, trying to find the meaning of it all.
But this is not the point of Ma.
Banhart draws on these tired themes of introspective dread, tie-dying them with the thoughtful colors of life’s simple joys. This is an artist not looking back, but one looking forward.
Ma is Banhart’s love-letter to his hypothetical child. Where the artist’s past albums have featured little in the name of reflection, favoring whimsy over scripture, his latest release is flush with takeaways and hard-learned lessons. Against a backdrop of fizzy acoustic loops, Banhart spins a web of silky meditations on love, obstacles and defining home with a tone akin to a long night’s bedtime story.
The opening track — “Is This Nice?” — perpetuates the cool and angelic rhythms of a nursery rhyme. With lyrics that call into question whether his feelings are genuine or whether his emotions are real, there is an existentialism that underlines the smooth and simmering melody. “Abre Las Manos” is an ode to his home in Venezuela and his cultural roots. His liquid lyrics in whispering Spanish ground his calls to the ambient environment of the Venezuelan world that he remembers and loves.
Despite the songs that decorate this album being more sonically seasoned than some of his past works, Banhart has not lost track of his niche sound. Each of the tracks on Ma incorporates the bubbly, folkloric aesthetics and jaunty, idiosyncratic percussion that brought him indie glory over 10 years ago. But in the folds of Ma, Banhart’s theatrical indie rock is less temperamental and vastly more refined.
In short, vulnerability looks great on Banhart’s music.
Ma ends with a sweet duet between Banhart and singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan. A casual orchestral instrumental introduces the melody of the song as Banhart’s vibrato comes in quietly. Bunyan’s lavender vocals echo in the deep background of the song, like shouts underwater bubbling to the ocean’s surface. As the supple guitar and crooning violin dance with one another, Banhart and Bunyan sing, “And I love the way / I want everyone to know / How very much I love them / But never told them.”
It is this that Banhart leaves us with: love unspoken, feelings unclaimed. With this, he echoes the sentiment of Ma as a whole. Through the breaths and lessons of this album, Banhart encourages us to speak up, share our wisdom and share our hearts — whether it be to our children or to the world, there’s no difference.