BANKS’ Album “The Altar” Glows with Icy Intensity

Photo by Thomas Whiteside

by Lily Lyons

Photo by Thomas Whiteside

Photo by Thomas Whiteside

I made the mistake of thinking I could clean my apartment while pumping BANKS’ sophomore album The Altar through my speakers. For the next 45 minutes, I sat on my bed and swayed reverentially to the dark electronic R&B while the dishes remained unwashed.

It’s easy to lose yourself in the dark landscape of intimacy and fear that BANKS creates in her songs. I think this is because her lyrics are like freshly spilled blood: painful, immediate, messy, and—perhaps most importantly—believable. This lyrical honesty combined with a smoky, electronic production aesthetic was arguably what made her debut album Goddess so successful with listeners and bloggers. I expected nothing less from The Altar but I was curious to see how BANKS had evolved and what was currently inspiring her. After all, confessional songwriting is only as effective as what the artist has to confess.

I immediately felt a newer, stronger BANKS on the opening track, “Gemini Feed.” A muted synth ostinato and a rattling snare set a cold backdrop over which BANKS draws a bleak and physically charged picture of a fading relationship. “If you would have let me grow you could have kept my love,” she sings unapologetically at the end of the first chorus. This chilly, confident declaration is in many ways a departure from the pleading vulnerability that characterized Goddess but I was excited to hear it—it felt like BANKS was more aware of her power.

The second track, “F**k with Myself,” is an album standout for me. The production is shimmery, slick, and minimal and BANKS’ voice dances over it with sensual playfulness, changing tone colors and even shifting into whispering for a line. An ode to self-pleasure on the surface, the lyrics also suggest a realization of personal power and self-sufficiency. In the music video for the song, BANKS smears an effigy of her face with lipstick and then ignites it with a lighter.

The message is clear: it is time for the former, less-assertive BANKS to go.

BANKS’ desire to step into a more self-assured identity via The Altar does cause some growing pains. While tracks such as “Judas” support her soft, conviction-heavy vocal delivery with coolly aggressive beats, there are moments in the album when the production overpowers her singing. “Trainwreck” in particular gets sonically crowded in its attempt to sound like an upbeat single. It also deviates from BANKS’ dark minimal sound into more generic territory, leaving me wanting to warm to it but conflicted as to whether I would.

The last two songs on the album ended up being the ones I replayed most. They are both unabashed, aching ballads. “To The Hilt” is a quiet track, with a slow-burning intensity that gave me serious chills. There are times in it when BANKS voice is left without pitch correction, and the slight wavering that results sounds almost like a sob. The lyrics—about a lover left behind during the rise to success—are brutal as they are rueful: “we backed each other to the hilt/now I live in this house we built.” In contrast, “27 Hours” starts softly but the chorus hits with the adrenaline rush of a proper banger. Here BANKS is able to marry power and intimacy in a way that feels natural. She sounds freshly wounded and ruthless while using the lyrical imagery of a murder to describe the way she sabotages a relationship.

It’s exciting to see BANKS come out of her shell and use her songs to communicate the confident woman that she is. Her willingness to explore emotions such as anger and aloofness rather than just writing passively about heartbreak inspires me in my own songwriting. BANKS’ music is the real altar: I can kneel before it spellbound and walk away moved.