Pop music has a fraught relationship with the concept of self-love. Many chart-toppers seemingly make it their mission to bolster the ego of the listener: after all, being told that we’re “fuckin’ perfect”, in the words of Pink, is of course much nicer than ruminating on our deepest flaws. At the same time, however, the many arms of popular culture and media share no small responsibility for the crisis of self-worth plaguing modern Western culture. We may be told to love ourselves, but when this message is delivered by immaculate, larger-than-life goddesses who are themselves under enormous pressure to project an image of perfection at all times, it’s hard not to nonetheless walk away feeling more inadequate than ever. To authentically convey self-love in a pop song is therefore a difficult task.
Nonetheless, this is precisely what Banks sets out to do on her sophomore effort, The Altar. In the places where she accomplishes her mission, the results are thrilling and revelatory. “My love’s so good / So I fuck with myself more than anybody else,” she whispers on lead single “Fuck With Myself”. The song has a vaguely Eastern, sensual feel that recalls the dark, spare, humid pop of Britney Spears’s “I’m A Slave 4 U” in the best way possible. Banks seems to lead us through smoky corridors, guiding us to a dark place where she whispers cryptic yet unmistakably sexual messages into our ear. But we are not the subjects of her longing: Banks wants us to know that she needs no one other than herself to satisfy her desires, intoning, “My love is the one, my love is the one.”
As an approach to self-love, the song is notable, perhaps even radical, for being so overtly physical. At least in the song’s most literal interpretation, Banks is implying that she masturbates more often than she sleeps with other people, which is certainly not the impression most pop stars want to convey about themselves. To seduce and be desired by others is one of the highest forms of social capital in our culture, and too often sex is as much a means of demonstrating power as it is a source of pure physical pleasure. To content oneself in sexual solitude, and to speak about this openly, is decidedly uncool and deeply upsetting to a patriarchal and consumerist world.
For this reason, “Fuck With Myself” establishes itself as an instant Banks classic, right up there with “Beggin For Thread”, “Drowning” and “Brain” from her 2014 debut Goddess. Along with the buoyant yet substantial album opener “Gemini Feed”, the pair makes for a powerful start to The Altar, finding Banks fully in command of her arsenal.
Elsewhere, Banks continues her project of personal empowerment, but unfortunately, she never achieves close to the same success. Her message remains solid on tracks like “Weaker Girl”, which dismisses a manipulative lover for preferring weakness to strength in their partners. Banks will have none of it, insisting she’s a “bad motherfucker.” She does not sound committed to this notion, however: her delivery sounds strangely absent, tired even, as though she were mumbling to herself. She engages neither with the victimization of her former self nor with her newly minted empowerment. Percussion swoops in at about the one-minute mark, sounding like some producer’s last-ditch effort to breathe life into the song, but Banks sounds entirely unaware of its presence. The loveliest moment of the song is when everything fades away except for a gorgeous wash of strings.
Sadly, though, most everything from track three to track 11 suffers from the same lack of vitality and ideas. On the thin, brittle rager “Trainwreck”, Banks crams rapid-fire syllables into verses, seeming to almost emulate the poetic style of Ani DiFranco or Joni Mitchell but lacking entirely the stripped down candidness of those artists, sounding more like a Meghan Trainor throwaway instead. “This Is Not About Us” similarly relies on the boom and thump of its production to create a sense of energy, but underneath, it is totally anemic. It’s like lathering on makeup and downing excessive amounts of coffee in an effort to conceal a monstrous hangover.
Banks goes more intently for the singer-songwriter approach elsewhere, but this, too, produces mixed results. “Mother Earth” finds Banks backed by an acoustic guitar, but as we learned with “Someone New”, another Goddess cut, this is not the best look for her. While her distinctive, serpentine vocals remain strong, the song is nothing short of adult contemporary, if adult contemporary is taken as code for “nice-but-bland”. “Mind Games” attempts to marry the competing impulses of Banks’s sonic personas — the dark queen of electro-pop with the confessional balladeer — but it comes across as lethargic and overly improvised.
Banks finally resuscitates herself to pull off a stunning pair of closing tracks, at least. “To the Hilt” is also a ballad, but there is no questioning her emotional vitality here. The song is a devastating reflection on love lost, long after the anger has subsided, and she is left with only an empty space and some memories. Banks quivers over every line, in total communion with her melancholic piano. The song is her “This Woman’s Work”, and its presence does a lot to help the album. She follows it with the finale, “27 Hours”, perhaps the rawest piece of music Banks has recorded yet. It starts out sounding again like just another piano-driven number before Banks unleashes a raspy howl and a cataclysm of horns overtakes the track in a forceful wall of sound. It’s a lot to pack into just over three minutes, making the song a brief but powerful closer.
The high points of The Altar are nearly perfect, but these are outnumbered by a massive middle section comprised of unremarkable, uninspired filler. This dilutes the potency of the album as a whole and forces the stronger tracks to act like standalone songs, depriving them of a larger context from which to draw additional strength. Banks has clearly continued growing as an artist over the past few years, and in places, her composition and execution is tighter than ever before. However, she neglects to bring her best work to all or even most of the tracks here.