by NICK BUCHANAN
Upon the release of Banks' debut record, its title evoked the image of a strong, unshakable female. But the 18 tracks housed on Goddess revealed the vulnerabilities of a young woman haunted by the ghosts of turbulent relationships past; it's no doubt we saw a goddess, but a goddess at her most emotionally taxed. Her sophomore release, though, bears cover art that breaks the barriers of what is traditionally expected from a self-proclaimed goddess: her hair is undone, her freckles are uncovered. But it's raw. It's real. And through embracing herself in purest form on this record, she resolves her former insecurities with the reigning confidence she promised to have all along.
The Altar is far from a subtle affair – perhaps she made that clear when she dropped the bold "F*** with Myself" as the lead single, complete with a video in which she manhandles (and then burns) a hairless effigy of herself. Over a beat that borrows from the janky antics of FKA twigs, she juxtaposes her prior statements ("You burn me with your words" of "Someone New" has been twisted into "Your words would burn me in the third degree" here) and proclaims her own self-worth. It's the attitude that opened this era on the right foot, for it is the attitude that prevails through most of the record as she backtracks on previous statements made in the heat of heartbreak – seemingly not out of regret for once having honest feelings of hopelessness or weakness, but out of pride for overcoming those thoughts.
At one point on this record, Banks puts her revitalized mindset into perspective: "I think you need a weaker girl / Kind of like the girl I used to be." And while I would argue that she was never the weaker girl for writing music based on her emotions, she's certainly nothing if not thunderous as she takes power back into her own hands. She becomes fiery with passion, especially when she rips through powerhouse choruses on tracks like "Gemini Feed" and "Trainwreck." The former, with its water-drop synth line and irresistible melody, easily asserts itself among the best tracks of the year, while "Trainwreck" jumps alive with an urgent synth sputter before our songstress enters with a matched immediacy: "When I come through, you were dark blue / And I saved you, from your darker days / Born to take care of you / Or I thought so, maybe it was just a phase," she bellows, once again side-eyeing her past self-image.
Banks prides herself on being a songwriter first and foremost, but she tends to downplay her ability to shape-shift her voice like an experienced contortionist. She offers something to marvel at in every soundscape, whether it's when she mimics bass lines, spurts ad-libs, or exposes a ragged-edge range during her infrequent journeys into minimalist territory. Aligning with the lattermost category, "Mother Earth" features a full Jillian Banks choir and "To the Hilt" leaves a singular fragile vocal line to its own devices over a synthesized piano (and, moreover, offers closure to both the 18 tracks worth of heartache on her debut and the other 11 tracks of vengeance here). Personally, I'm a sucker for the moments when her vocals are paired with a layer of vocoder-laden ones to create unhinged yet spellbinding results: the muttered snarls of "Poltergeist" in particular offer quite the ghastly kick. Likewise, "Judas" is tailored with vocal production that is, well, apt for a song titled "Judas."
Although still a sturdy record two years on, Goddess is admittedly a one-trick pony of an album, filled to the brim with brooding, downtempo electronics. This time around, Banks and her producers, both returning and new, stretch her brand of alternative R&B in all directions with expertise. At her most energized, she eyes trap and jungle beat with pop tendencies; at her most sensual, she veers towards a muffled drumbeat and a warm guitar riff; at her most intimate, she takes a liking to strings and implements organic elements into her world of mad electronics. What results is a record that is much more varied than her last record, but one that retains her signature sonic cornerstones and claustrophobic moodiness.
There is something to be said about not only the artistic evolution, but also the personal transformation displayed on The Altar. This is not the record that was expected from an artist who had been known, even if based on only one record, to wallow in heartache. It is represented by a title that, without context, hints at either of two extremes: unconditional or unrequited love. But because Banks opens the record with the snide "And to think you would get me to the altar," we enter the album with the understanding that the title does not represent the devotion (or lack thereof) to another. It is a devotion to herself: as an artist, as a sexual being, as a woman. And it is through that mindset that she truly reigns supreme. (★★★★★ out of five)
The Altar is available now under Harvest Records.
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