ALBUMS: Devendra Banhart Further Illuminates His MO Through Ma

The freak-folk survivor proves his staying power on tenth LP

Devendra Banhart / Art by Ron Hart

Artist: Devendra Banhart

Album: Ma

Label: Nonesuch

★★★★ (4/5 stars)

Call it old folk or nu-folk. No matter what the folk you label it, music with roots relevance is always immensely affecting.

Any variation in presentation is conveyed chiefly through means and methods. So if the newer sounds of today’s sound don’t  reflect your daddy’s folk music anymore, blame the latter day efforts of Joanna Newsom, Iron & Wine, Vashti Bunyan, Bon Iver and Devendra Banhart in particular. Each can be considered astute individuals who have pioneered a new and varied vintage sounding style that retains a distinctly low lit focus, all of it artfully framed with today’s hipsters in mind.   

Devendra Banhart Ma, Nonesuch 2019

Banhart’s always been in the vanguard of that curious crowd, an artist for whom the nu-folk label was practically invented. The psychedelic strains that permeate his music carry it well beyond its Laurel Canyon origins by shedding patchwork and pachouli in favor of much deeper designs. It’s often elusive at best, a lush sound bound in cosmic trappings. In the past, that’s made Banhart seem far more provocative than in actual fact he actually is, one reason why he’s yet to catch on with the Birkenstock crowd to any great degree. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any of Banhart’s ballads finding an easy mesh with “Kumbaya” or “Puff the Magic Dragon” in the midst of a fireside singalong or serenade.

Banhart’s latest, Ma, is unlikely to change that perception, but it does offer evidence that he’s not quite the cosmic crusader that some way think he is. There are any number of lovely, hushed and intimate offerings here — “Memorial” and “Carolina” being but two of the most affecting — but it’s the overall theme of the album itself, a sort of celebration of motherhood, that’s likely to endear it to the resistant masses that remain. That in itself elevates the possibilities of creating a tender and touching encounter, one that’s sad by some measures but also elevated with exuberance through others. The rich arrangements add a certain intrigue, but unlike before, Banhart isn’t out to confound his listeners, but simply seduce them instead. That’s apparent in the decidedly delicate trappings of opening track “Is This Nice?” and the whimsy and repast of the song that follows, “Kantori Ongaku,” the title of which provides the only obstacle to a more emphatic embrace.

So too, the fact that the album was recorded in Big Sur — long a spiritual refuge for those who retain their ‘60s sentiments — ought to create a common connection between both true and nu folk aficionados. Atmosphere and ambiance are certainly suitable bedfellows, a fact that Banhart has always appeared well aware of. Ultimately, that makes Ma his biggest attempt yet at finding a more expansive audience, one that may perceive his devotion to retaining some past precepts in today’s modern musical environs. Yet for that he ought to be celebrated and saluted, particularly in this era of cynicism and suspicion. As stated above, this may not be your father’s folk, but the music on Ma ought to earn your mother’s approval.


AUDIO: Devendra Banhart Ma (full album)


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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