Devendra Banhart is still every bit the boyish bringer of freak-folk that contacted Vashti Bunyan (whom he continues to thank in his liner notes) over a decade ago, but his canvases are less Pollocked. Things may have mellowed — his hair is cropped, his shirts buttoned in full, his music perhaps more universally approachable — but Banhart has not lost his touch.
His new album Ape in Pink Marble is thematically based on the idea of these tunes being what you'd hear at a hotel in a peculiar part of Tokyo — which explains the tinkling of the koto, a traditional Japanese harp, that sneaks in every now and again. The theme allows Banhart to embody many a character and many a feeling, from the "fruitless tragicomedy of a destined-to-fail seduction" in the absurdly amusing Italo-disco "Fig in Leather" (which was a contender for the album title) to "Fancy Man," where Banhart embodies a blue-blooded materialist that comes "from a long line of people who have never waited in line" that realizes it's all for naught by the song's end.
It feels very much like a companion record to 2013's Mala, which should come as no surprise given he's working with essentially the same cast (Noah Georgeson, Josiah Steinbrick, Rodrigo Amarante), but Ape is distinctly softer and better put together. There are odes (the meaning behind "Middle Names" changed following the passing of a friend; "Jon Lends a Hand" is for Jonathan Richman), a myriad of instruments (more synths, mellotron, aforementioned koto) and there's less flagrant experimentation. The album is riddled with feeling, and there is an adamant sense of joy.
Banhart's songwriting has sharpened in its focus, no longer the meandering, try-anything sort of thing that his past self would execute in abundance (honestly, his first two records each boasted over 20 songs). His voice is clear and close, but he still ends every other line with that sneaking vibrato, or plays around with the sounds he makes.
For every dose of poetry — "You're the dream of love unspoken / You're a flower that never opened / No exception will be made, we all get our own sad serenade" in the alluring and dulcet "Saturday Night" — there is a dash of humour. "I've got a dumb dance inside my pants, man / and I've watched all the latest shows on Bing-Bong," he sings on "Fancy Man."
Banhart addresses spirituality and self-awareness on "Mara" (which is a Buddhist demon that "acts as a mirror and who definitely gets off when we trip up and succumb to total unconsciousness); "Linda" finds Banhart playing with gender yet again as he embodies the titular character; "Lucky" is a very on-the-nose account of the recognition of how, well, lucky the protagonist is to have his love, and has some decidedly Devendra wordplay: "Some people want lots of people / Some people don't want none / Me, I don't want lots of people / Me, I don't want none." Later, he utters the swoon-worthy, "It's like the sun is setting in your eyes".
Ape in Pink Marble comes to a close with the instrumental "Celebration" (the title being the only word sung), ending the listener's stay at the fictional hotel. And as you leave, thinking of all the characters encountered — the poor fool hopelessly trying to romance, the lonely woman, the couple falling in love right before your eyes — and the feelings felt (romance, loneliness, epiphanies and sympathies), don't forget to tip the bellboy. (Nonesuch)