Music

Banks: The Altar

The high points of The Altar are nearly perfect, but are outnumbered by a middle section comprised of unremarkable, uninspired filler.


Banks

The Altar

Label: Harvest
US Release Date: 2016-09-30
UK Release Date: 2016-09-29
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.

Music

Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish Replace Form with Risk on 'Interactivity'

The more any notions of preconceived musicality are flicked to the curb, the more absorbing Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish's Interactivity gets.

Music

Martin Green's Junkshop Yields the Gritty, Weird Story of Britpop Wannabes

Featuring a litany of otherwise-forgotten budget bin purchases, Martin Green's two-disc overview of coulda-been Britpop contenders knows little of genre confines, making for a fun historical detour if nothing else.

Reviews

Haux Compellingly Explores Pain via 'Violence in a Quiet Mind'

By returning to defined moments of pain and struggle, Haux cultivates breathtaking music built on quiet, albeit intense, anguish.

Reviews

'Stratoplay' Revels in the Delicious New Wave of the Revillos

Cherry Red Records' six-disc Revillos compilation, Stratoplay, successfully charts the convoluted history of Scottish new wave sensations.

Reviews

Rising Young Jazz Pianist Micah Thomas Debuts with 'Tide'

Micah Thomas' Tide is the debut of a young jazz pianist who is comfortable and fluent in a "new mainstream": abstraction as well as tonality, freedom as well as technical complexity.

Music

Why Australia's Alice Ivy Doesn't Want to Sleep

Alice Ivy walks a fine line between chillwave cool and Big Beat freakouts, and her 2018 debut record was an electropop wonder. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she tries to keep the good vibes going with a new record decked out in endless collaborations.

Books

Five Women Who Fought the Patriarchy

Whether one chooses to read Square Haunting for the sketches of the five fascinating women, or to understand how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, Francesca Wade's book is a superb achievement.

Film

Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly

In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.

Music

Learning to Take a Picture: An Interview With Inara George

Inara George is unafraid to explore life's more difficult and tender moments. Discussion of her latest music, The Youth of Angst, leads to stories of working with Van Dyke Parks and getting David Lee Roth's musical approval.

Music

Country Westerns Bask in an Unparalleled Sound and Energy on Their Debut

Country Westerns are intent on rejecting assumptions about a band from Nashville while basking in an unparalleled sound and energy.

Film

Rediscovering Japanese Director Tomu Uchida

A world-class filmmaker of diverse styles, we take a look at Tomu Uchida's very different Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji and The Mad Fox.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.