Christ almighty – remember that bit in The Simpsons where Bart comes into school sporting heavy shoes, thick glasses and a hair full of medicated salve, catches a reflection of himself in Milhouse’s glasses and murmurs, horrified, “Oh my God… I’m a nerd?” I feel you, man. There I was at the start of this week, all dressed up in my flannel shirt, moisturising my beard with a tin of some custard-coloured Lush product, loudly playing the new Devendra Banhart album as part of research for my music blog. Turns out I’m a hipster, probably terminally so. So I suppose there’s a part of me which is slightly glad that, after thinking about it for a few days, I don’t really like Ape in Pink Marble all that much, which is fortunate, because Devendra Banhart’s a good songwriter and the pride in avoiding being a complete cliché might just cancel out the disappointment.
The tone for the album is overwhelmingly cheerful, although in a twee, nostalgic sort of way rather than an upbeat way. Synths and guitars – largely smushed into a texturally indeterminate popping twang – meander lazily through melodies largely unrelated to the patterns of either Banhart’s voice or the occasional ticking of percussion. There’s a misty shimmer to the chords and a geode sparkle to the more prominent instruments; lyrics are written and delivered with an old timey sort of courteousness. There’s a sunbeams-in-an-old photograph glow to the whole affair, and the album at its best manages to be a fairly decent soundtrack to your next good-spirited bit of relaxation time. The album works on some level when it manages to give itself some sort of shape: “Fancy Man” has some pretty and quite distinctive guitar licks; “Fig In Leather” rests on a gentle but elegant groove. But even then, it’s a soundtrack and not a rallying call. The emotional tone isn’t specific enough to be relatable, and doesn’t offer much by way of musical catharsis or lyrical insight. It’ll sound appropriate when you’re in the right mood but I wouldn’t rely on it to change your mood, is my point; if you’re expecting to enjoy it as an emotive piece (which is the main way I enjoy music as devoid of riff and groove as this) you’ll find it something of a fairweather friend.
And that’s just the album at its best. Most of it feels like a hodgepodge of Antlers B-sides. Banhart’s refusal to stick with a theme or a melody might come from a sincere commitment to minimalism, but there’s an art to making your vacuity and your aimlessness sound like meditation rather than indulgence; we know that because Nick Cave nailed it straight between the eyes last week. This is usually the point in the review where I cite two or maybe three songs as examples, but honestly here it barely feels warranted, because so much of this album feels not only interchangeable, but indivisible: I can’t really say where one song ends – in terms of achieving a clear raison d’etre – and another begins any more than I can map out the currents in a thick fog.
The lyrics, unfortunately, don’t help matters. As I said, I like Devendra Banhart, and albums like Rejoicing in the Hands worked despite their musical aimlessness because they were tied to if not a clear narrative than at least an overriding theme. On Ape in Pink Marble, lyrics are disconnected vignettes. “Hello, is that you? Come in and have a seat/Remove your shoes, enjoy some fruit/did I mention have a seat?” sings Banhart on “Fig in Leather”; I have no idea who the conversation is between and even less why having a seat is so particularly important. The delivery exacerbates the issue. Banhart sings softly and a little distantly, emphasizing the melodies over the syntax, and it puts the lyrics in the backseat a lot more than his more plaintive early style did.
Ape in Pink Marble isn’t a terrible album. It’s pretty enough, and there’s a sincere sweetness behind it. But it’s candy floss, nothing more: indirect, saccharine, a lot more complex in shape than actual taste, and, at the end of the day, not satisfying.