Album Review: Banks – The Altar

The alt R&B singer-songwriter coaxes universal emotion from her life on an adventurous sophomore album




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On her 2014 debut album, Goddess, Banks anointed herself a deity. Now, on The Altar, she examines the pedestal she stands on, finding herself as immortal as ever but no less vulnerable. Before she broke through in 2013, Jillian Banks spent a decade honing her craft and making music, none of it for public consumption. In that time, she cultivated an unashamedly confessional tone and consistent first-person perspective in her lyricism, elements she relies on to this day.

Where Goddess was often tepid and relied on material from previously released EPs, The Altar is nimble and far more enjoyable. Tempos are up and tempers have flared; the album’s edge is signaled most obviously by lead single “Fuck with Myself”. The lyrics are assertive enough (“So I fuck with myself more than anybody else,” she sneers), but Banks’ vocal contortions over the spare, percussive instrumentation really embody the message. On The Altar, Banks takes more risks with her singing, and though they do not always pay off — a particularly nasal, even painful point on the overproduced “Poltergeist” comes to mind — they add welcome texture to the album.

Many of Banks’ producers on Goddess, including SOHN, Al Shux, and Tim Anderson, have returned on The Altar, retaining the impeccably smooth, haunting sound reminiscent of The Weeknd and Rihanna’s ANTI. But this time around they introduce new sonic elements to her hermetic world: guitar curlicues on “Lovesick”, warm strings and birdsong on “Mother Earth”, a man’s backing vocals on “Poltergeist”. These delicate production touches ground The Altar, even as Banks’ lyrical universe stays as insular as ever. The California artist has found her niche in interrogating confusing emotions, blowing romantic dramas wide open, and penning lines to ex-lovers and lovers-to-be. Banks tends to retread ideas over songs — see the declarative empowerment of “Fuck with Myself” and “Weaker Girl”, as well as the witchy pairing of “Haunt” and “Poltergeist”. From those consistent themes, listeners can easily discern the contours of Banks’ mind when she made The Altar.

Banks is open about the diaristic nature of her writing, but she also cloaks her songs with enough dramatic and declarative force to obscure the biography behind the blown-out narratives. She artfully coaxes universal emotion from the particularities of her life instead of revealing them outright. For instance, from the chorus of “Gemini Feed”, listeners learn that the titular altar might very well refer to a doomed marriage proposal: “To think you would get me to the altar/ Like I’d follow you around like a dog that needs water.” But Banks doesn’t dwell on this, instead capturing the universal experience of being diminished by a romantic partner: “But admit it that you wanted me smaller/ If you would have let me grow, you would have kept my love.” On “To the Hilt”, where she yearns for a former lover (who was likely an early collaborator), she is a little more transparent and clumsily so: “Hated you for walking out/ I blew up and you were gone/ So they say it’s the industry/ But I miss you on my team.” Banks’ turns of phrase occasionally scan oddly, but they also pull her songs out of anonymous territory.

On this album, Banks offers music that objectively sounds much like what she has created before. None of the material on The Altar will revolutionize alt R&B, future soul, or whatever awkward label one might apply to this nebulous genre. What is here, though, is proof of an artist still searching for a new direction. The left turns on the album are promising, whether it’s the darker, more menacing bent that starts with the excellent “Judas” through to the closer, “27 Hours”, or the hip-hop adjacent, radio-ready banger that is “Trainwreck”. Where Banks will go next is anyone’s guess.

Essential Tracks: “Fuck With Myself”, “Lovesick”, and “Judas”