Review Summary: Write your name on the Earth in gasoline and just light that shit on fire
In our modest staff year-end round-up for 2014, where we praised the best of what that year had offered, I wrote that BANKS
's 2014 debut, Goddess
, was a record put forth by someone whose attitude was balanced with her vulnerability. It was little more than a throwaway line in a rushed year-end blurb, but I'm wondering about it now, almost two years later. It's a dumbfucking whatever total waste of time to try to hold oneself accountable for every critical thought that bubbles up when writing about something as fluid and temperamental as music, but if we're being honest, I think the only lingering elements of that record are those that skew to the cocky, confident, JB - the very ideals of a #GODDESS
, "juicy and womanly and sexy and milky and nutritious and curvy and yummy and strong
." Maybe it's just the normal outflow of having endured more (many more) spins in the years since its release, or maybe it's what happens after a remix album, or after it's heard live, but nothing of the interplay I conceived back then resides in the ether when Goddess
plays nowadays-- that album is pure fucking poise. Maybe I was wrong from the start. I think I was, actually. I think I projected my own ideas about 'vulnerability' onto the cooked, confessional flow of Goddess
. For shits, I just looked up what Deviant
(the GOAT!) saw in his September '14 review (and he, unsurprisingly, nailed it): "There's a sneer behind the confidently-conceived seductive façade... [T]here's a sense that... Banks is all too aware of, and already distancing herself from, the neat and contrived descriptions that befall any young female singer-songwriters.
I'm going to make right on my read on Banks, as she now offers The Altar
, her follow-up to Goddess
, and a clear affirmation of what I just worked out, unnecessarily, in the preceding paragraph. The Altar
is not an album that needs any context; what Banks has crafted here is an even-handed mix of tight electro igniters and slow-burning passages into her head and bed, each move lined with the same brooding R&B-tinged exposition that has come to characterize her sound.
The confidence on this album is inspired, observable, and the clear result of Banks' growth as a songwriter. "Gemini Feed," the album's opener, takes off with an unexpected, quick-tempo draw of first blood. The track dances around within its own darkness, soaking it in. It's an interesting choice for an opener on this
record, especially when stepping back and thinking about the critical praise heaped upon Goddess
and the healthy following Banks has cultivated in the two years since its release. This could very easily have been reserved with a broad appeal big-picture love song, a generic re-introduction of sorts. Instead, you can tell there is something (or someone) very specific on her mind when she autopsies her dead relationship. Trying to get into Banks' head, however, is an exercise in misdirecting your efforts, for just as sharply as “Gemini Feed” raises these questions, “Fuck With Myself” answers them.
Perhaps the most immediate song on the album is "Trainwreck." Banks' delivery is almost rap-like, and she goes head to head with some major league electropop hooks. There is a gravity to the production here that maybe was lacking on Goddess
(or, if not a gravity, then certainly a diversity
). "Mother Earth" retains the string accompaniment that closed out the wildly different "Weaker Girl" on the track preceding it, except where the latter constructs a fun chorus around 80s-ish electrofunk beats, the former opts only for layered vocal pleas and an unobtrusive backing guitar. Album closer, "To the Hilt," as suggested by its placement, provides a polar opposite to "Gemini Feed." The blood-soaked laundry list of what went wrong is only comforting for so long, and it does little to replace what has evaporated by the time loss sets in. Flanked by nothing more than a minimalist piano, Banks closes The Altar
with a eulogy-- it's the mirrored reflection of the way she opened the album, both sonically and lyrically.
Overall, this is unmistakably a Banks album, so if you've liked anything she's done so far, this is definitely worth checking out. Despite some of the shifts described above, her darkness is still there, and it is still equal parts inviting and off-putting. The trade-off here is viscera; it might be too early to tell, but I'm not sure yet if there's anything as scorched as "Brain" or "You Should Know Where I'm Coming From," or anything as raw as "Better," the single that bridged the gap between Goddess
and the Altar
. Still, there is plenty here to worship.