On Friday, Sept. 23, artist Devendra Banhart released his ninth album, “Ape in Pink Marble.” The album is sleepy and charming, interweaving Banhart’s wispy voice with light angelic sounds and soft guitar strums. To put it simply, Banhart is a multi-cultural, androgynous force of nature. While he is best known for his music, Banhart dabbles in all creative media, showcasing his original drawings on the cover of his albums and producing colorful books full of his experimental photographs, drawings and poems. He is even a style icon, often sporting wild hair and eccentric outfits.
Banhart’s music is often described as freak-folk or New Weird American, but for me, Banhart’s music is in a league of its own. Some songs are delicate, light-hearted tunes with surrealist lyrics. Others are slower, darker and heartbreakingly poetic, and still others are wild folksy rhythms.
Banhart’s songs combine elements from different cultures. As a Venezuelan-American, he primarily sings in Spanish and English. However, in “Mala” he incorporates Serbian lyrics, while other albums feature Portuguese, French and German.
Out of all his work, “Ape” is the most airy and minimal, and as a whole, the album is very coherent. In an interview with Observer, Banhart commented, “I’m happy that this record, unlike all the records in the past, it isn’t so all over the place. I feel that everything’s so relative and subjective, and this record compared to the others really does flow in this one, calm ocean” (Observer, “A Freak Refined: How Mourning Shaped Devendra Banhart’s ‘Ape in Pink Marble,’” 09.14.2016).
The album begins with the song, “Middle Names,” a tribute to one of Banhart’s late friends and is a dark but relaxing listen. The record continues to carry this melancholic tone until mid-album where the beat picks up. The songs “Fancy Man” and “Fig in Leather” maintain the airiness of the album, but have a groovy edge with fun lyrics. Discussing these songs, Banhart remarked, “Now those songs aren’t super-aggressive, super-dancey songs, but in relation to the rest of the record, they definitely stand out. They disrupt the harmony of the record.” The album then reverts back to its somber mood with the song “Souvenirs” and ends with the utterly sad and sleepy “Celebration.”
In line with the multiculturalism of his past work, “Ape” incorporates Brazilian influences, particularly elements from samba and bossa nova. Banhart also uses a Japanese stringed instrument, the koto, which creates these ethereal plucks that are present in almost every tracks on the record.
The album has a distinct narrative, creating a scene in a Tokyo hotel, with songs exploring characters who live at the hotel. For instance “Fancy Man” wittily describes a spoiled youth who “comes from a long line of people who have never waited in line.” “Fig in Leather” is about a sleazy older man who invites a “top-quality lady” to come into his room to “enjoy some fruit.” Banhart even personifies a woman in “Linda”—the mellowest song of the album about a “lonely woman” who “won’t leave a trace” and is “drifting through town.” This characterization of the record helps form the album’s eerie, dream-like aesthetic.
Interestingly, Banhart wrote the album after a lot of his close friends and relatives passed away. In his interview with Observe.com, Banhart says, “I didn’t sit down and write a song about them, or about that experience, but that process of mourning and that ongoing process certainly informed the record, whether I liked it or not, and definitely merged with the entirety of the album.”
It offers the best of both worlds with its highly hypnotic sadness, and cuter, groovier tracks. he album is great to listen to whether you’re in a pensive state of mind, chilling out on a Sunday afternoon or just want to dance to “Fancy Man” like a fancy man.