For an artist who used to stake his entire being on conveying an uproarious, positively childlike level of glee throughout his work, Devendra Banhart has aged into quite the gentleman. Banhart’s beginnings as a yodeling folkster may have initially seemed poised to become a saccharine, grating gimmick as the years went on, yet time has proven Banhart to be a songwriter in a class of his own, free from whatever aesthetic prison the namecallers of “freak-folk” might try to impose on him. Almost every album Banhart has released to date has borne a kind of beautiful imperfection; his music has never felt rushed or bogged down by ego, but rather it has managed to exude a joyousness and a contentment to simply be what it is, no matter the length of his beard. As Banhart has taken his slow stroll from outlandish beatnik gestures toward reserved, old-timey pop, he’s maintained a subtle, magical quality in his music. Even when he’s writing full-on doo-wop songs without much to them in the way of novelty, he still finds a way to emit a strange and hypnotic pulse through his sound, a wondrous kind of middleground between music that exists as a point of focus and music that disperses into the air.
On the lovely Ape in Pink Marble, Banhart continues the work of Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon and Mala, blurring the edges of his music until it becomes more a reflection of moods and textures than a collection of concrete songs. Like those albums, Ape in Pink Marble is swathed in a bleary, far-off reverb that gives the music a quality at once intimate and ever so beyond grasp. Banhart’s songwriting style has evolved into a relaxed simplicity that freely crosses over into easy-listening territory, painting Banhart as something like a straight-laced purveyor of moody coffee shop ditties, a whimsical storyteller who is nonetheless happy to seat himself amid an ensemble as delightful to listen to as he is. Across the spread, Ape in Pink Marble is strung with a rustic yet dreamy mix of keyboards, woodblocks, kotos, and karimbas, and oftentimes these colorful arrangements prove more central to the character of the music than the songs themselves. Although this can make Ape in Pink Marble scan as insubstantial at times, even in its cloudy nature, Banhart imbues the music with a surprising amount of character and feeling, lending it the aura of a disembodied spirit lingering on, both shapeless and somehow affecting.
The songs on Ape in Pink Marble apparently follow the narrative of an old man and a young woman meeting in the lobby of an anonymous hotel in Tokyo, but this guideline really only serves to illustrate the album’s mentality: the meeting point between familiarity and possibility, the fanciful and the mundane. Banhart’s best offerings convey this duality splendidly; “Souvenirs” moseys along in a dazed commute, complemented by just the slightest touch of Rhodes that nonetheless comes to be the lilting bedrock of the entire track. The mournful “Middle Names” follows Banhart as he imagines his missing friend appearing at a Walgreens in the middle of the night, its barebones two-chord progression rising into a pained, instrumental chorus, an embodiment of the hopeful uncertainty in Banhart’s grief. Even “Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green,” a wallpaper track if there ever was one, serves up a majestic potpourri of strings and synthesizers that spin Banhart’s Brazillian elevator shuffle into a vibrant, cozy creation. This open engagement with lounge music serves Ape in Pink Marble well for the most part, but Banhart occasionally slips so deeply into quiet politeness that he risks losing all trace of his identity completely. “Saturday Night” is blank and aimless in its attempts at sleepy R&B, and the old-fashioned “Lucky” is dragged down by its lazily mumbled lyrics and uncreative soul arrangements. As Banhart’s presence has become slighter over the years, there is a fine line that he dances on with his music between maintaining his own voice and becoming a bit generic.
At one point in “Middle Names,” Banhart dispels the romantic ambiguity of his lyrics with the line, “My love belongs to no one.” This sentiment could stand for Ape in Pink Marble as a whole, with its unspoken pleasures and light, jokey mood. Although Banhart might not be in the business of dancing around bonfires anymore, his music still feels like gazing into one, its nocturnal reverie calmly emanating a force both naturalistic and mystical. These may be pop songs, but they hardly feel like the work of an artist concerned with shifting large numbers of units, making their simple and pleasant demeanor come off as Banhart merely sharing his favorite pastime with us. If Ape in Pink Marble is anything, it’s another reminder from Banhart that you don’t have to be belting at the top of your lungs to prove that you’ve found some happiness.