Published Sep 17, 2019"Is this nice? Do you like it?" asks Devendra Banhart in the opening line on his tenth musical offering to the universe, Ma. Perhaps it asks that question too soon, tout de suite, before one even has an opinion or a chance to know how to feel. But this record is just that: nice.
There isn't quite as much spice, colour or flash as seasoned listeners of his may be accustomed to, but it's nice. And as the word's definition goes, this record is pleasant, agreeable and satisfactory. If you were to imagine each record of Banhart's as a pillow, this is certainly his softest selection to rest your head upon, with no sneaky pea underneath to make you squirm — not quirkily oversized or bizarrely shaped.
Aforementioned opener "Is This Nice?" and "Kantori Ongaku" (meaning "country music" in Japanese) are strong — the latter very much a nod to Japanese groovemaster Haruomi Hosono, with a music video that heavily nods to one half of Banhart's heritage, Venezuela, and asks viewers to donate to the I Love Venezuela Foundation. Very nice, very nice.
There's quite a lovely instrumental slow-burn on the closing of "Ami," and "Memorial" is a gentle piece, featuring Banhart addressing the listener softly atop simple guitar and warm instrumentation. "Carolina" is a gorgeous little tune that Banhart dishes out in Spanish, floral and full. "Now All Gone" is full of intrigue until the refrain sets in; the repeated cries of "Now all gone!" feel a bit of a mess, a bit forced and shrill, but the instrumental — especially the muted bass — keeps the song grounded.
"Taking a Page" is Ma's most light-hearted tune, with lines that are a little cheeky ("I'm in my Free Tibet shirt that's made in China") and a little self-aware ("I was taking a page / From all the time I spend / With a vanity / That knows no end"). Banhart's clearly having fun at the end of "My Boyfriend's in the Band," if the bouncy outro is any indication. Album ender "Will I See You Tonight?" is a duet with Vashti Bunyan, whom Banhart owes a great deal of his musical instinct and prowess to, no doubt.
Banhart is decidedly less "freaky" on this release; his song structure has taken on a more solid shape, things seem less loose and fancy-free, but no less emotional and heartfelt. Ma feels a bit like watching the sun slowly set: as it gently dips into the horizon, there are moments where the colours burst and excite, but mostly it's a careful and calm experience. (Nonesuch)