Devendra Banhart has never shied away from the esoteric. On “Für Hildegard von Bingen,” from 2013’s Mala, he recast the eponymous 12th-century Christian mystic as a “VJ on rotation” over a playful disco-rock groove. “María Lionza,” from 2009’s What Will We Be, is a dreamlike guitar and saxophone instrumental that references the Venezuelan syncretic deity by name. For Banhart’s 11th album Flying Wig, the once-king of freak folk softens his purview into something resembling a meditative peace chant. Produced by Welsh art-rock songwriter Cate Le Bon, the 10-track collection tackles heartbreak, forgiveness, and melancholia. Taking inspiration from “This Dewdrop World,” a poem by Japanese lay Buddhist priest and “Great Four” haiku master Kobayashi Issa, Banhart approaches somber themes with whimsy. Songs about losing phone chargers, or tales written from the perspective of nuns on the run, take on unexpectedly profound meanings.

While Flying Wig does indeed ascend, it never quite lands on solid ground—which feels like the whole point. Here, the one-time king of freak folk continues his avoidance of the campfire setting and acoustic instrumentation of his early work in favor of ethereal, synth-driven cuts and sleepy slacker rock. The focus on synthesizers results in a warm and pervasive hum, a floaty fantasia that threatens—in gentle, low whispers—to nod off at any moment.

Banhart’s first solo record in four years is funny and endearingly weird, even as it sings of life’s heaviness. The influence of Le Bon, who also played synth, guitar, percussion, bass, and piano on the album, is palpable in the slow-thudding drum machines on “Fireflies” (which plays out like a Beach House B-side) and quietly anthemic single “Twin,” both bolstered by a droning synth. Banhart has praised Le Bon for pushing him to new heights, and you can hear what he means in the album’s subtle moments of transcendence. “Charger” wraps a tender reflection of love lost in a silly, overarching metaphor (“It looks like I’ve lost my charger”) that gives way to a heavenly choir. On the title track, he assumes the perspective of a wig hanging off a mic stand, describing himself as “alone/Dancing naked/On an eye/Without a head.”

Banhart’s contemplative yet easygoing approach strikes a kind of surrealist gold. This levity isn’t new territory for him, but it allows Flying Wig’s strange images and Morphean soundscapes to vibrate on a higher plane. He also tapped into the divine feminine, donning a sky-blue Issey Miyake gown and his grandmother’s pearls throughout the recording process. The dress has been present at recent live shows, most notably last year’s Caracas’ Cusica Festival, his first-ever show in Venezuela. In press materials, Banhart explained that writing and singing in the dress parallels experiences from his childhood, when he would don his mother’s gowns: “It wasn’t about sexuality, just connecting with my feminine side and feeling that I had permission…It felt like a power. And that’s a very safe and comfortable place for me.” In its enveloping comfort, Flying Wig mirrors that feeling of safety.

Banhart has been drawing from queer aesthetics for years, a known follower of androgynous Haight-Ashbury ’60s collective the Cockettes who has set songs in the Castro district of San Francisco and written others as a femme. As he continues toying with gender, genre, open-hearted expression, and some of his most oblique songwriting yet, perhaps unintentionally, his work expounds on a crucial tenet of queerness: liberation in lightness and in unabashed optimism.

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Devendra Banhart: Flying Wig