On a global scale, 2016 was rough. It was amidst this great loss that Devendra Banhart, working off of the loss of several of his own loved ones, finished blowing the dust off of Ape in Pink Marble. A languid work that echoes his earlier stuff while looking toward the future, the record very loosely follows a narrative based in an unnamed Japanese hotel. Although the “plot” doesn’t exactly string the entire record along, you’ll find after listening to it a couple times that it doesn’t need to be strung along by anything. This chugging, mellow masterpiece of mourner’s freak-pop exists outside of any sadness, joy, or storyline.
The record came into my life at a time that I was thirsty for a new Banhart record. I had overdosed on the exuberance of Mala, and explored the sonic intricacies of Cripple Crow and Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon until I could pinpoint even the smallest cadences and key changes. His music was always special to me, not only for his willingness to experiment and stretch his musical boundaries into something unrecognizable and sexy, but because I had never personally related so much to an artist. I’m able to admire the music of my home country, but I’ve never been able to fully connect to a Venezuelan musician the way I have with him.
A far-cry from the dated (if admittedly catchy) gaitas my parents play around Christmas time, which I came to relate to most Venezuelan musicians, Banhart changed my personal soundscape and, if we’re really digging deep, my relationship to my country’s culture. Being a Venezuelan immigrant who found more common ground with the rock music of an English-speaking Western world than anything coming out of my country for a long time, Banhart, also an immigrant, became a focal point from a too-familiar vein. Ape in Pink Marble is a triumph, and it’s unlike anything he’s produced before. Ape has Banhart laying his emotions bare in a way that I felt mine were whenever I would put one of his records on.
The album veneers between the seductive and the hilarious, between cartoonish comedies and tributes to the dead. Where “Fancy Man” will make you want to get up and dance—I can still remember seeing him perform this live at his Rough Trade show, swaying about the stage with his hands on his hips—“Mourner’s Dance” and “Linda” will have you sobbing in the same beat. Banhart has also gotten a lot more cohesive; even the happiest moments on the record are tinged with melancholy. Most of the album takes after the languorous heartbeat that drives lead single “Saturday Night,” which is as pensive lyrically as it is sonically. Were it not for upbeat interludes like the near-disco “Fig in Leather,” the entire record might feel too heavy.
Even if it did, the way Banhart seamlessly weaves between fantastical narratives and painful realities through Ape’s carefully crafted sound is an invitation enough to, for a moment, feel light. For someone who continuously looked to his music for stability, that’s all I could ever want.
//Key tracks: “Jon Lends a Hand” as funky as it is tender, is by far my favorite. “Fancy Man” and “Fig in Leather” also offer welcome respite from the more doleful tracks, although there’s something to be said for the hushed power of memoriam march “Mourner’s Dance.”