Banks’ ‘The Altar’ succeeds with cerebral lyrics, dense sonic construction

Harvest Records/Courtesy
Banks The Altar | Harvest Records
Grade: B+

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Love can be, above all else, a suffocating, silencing act.

Nobody seems to know that better than Los Angeles-based electronic musician Banks. The Altar, Banks’ newest album released Friday through Harvest Records, might best be understood as Banks’ public encyclopedia of the many insidious manifestations of intimacy’s poisonous side.

Every song across The Altar is another chapter in a long, unhealthy-dating self-help advice column. Banks softens where she might tense up and finds the language to explain the pain she’s undergone as she shares pearls of wisdom penned from her trapped romantic life.

Banks excels at building to big choruses and then delivering lyrically. The art of the pop song chorus is often an unsung achievement. The Altar can be conceived of as a place of ritual sacrifice and a site of holy matrimony, or perhaps a place that intersects the two. More than that, the altar is an emotional space of greatest epiphany. This overwhelming, burgeoning of truth surfaces only in the most potent swell of the song: the chorus.

The Altar, then, can be thought of thematically as Banks’ ode to the modern pop-ballad chorus.

Opening track “Gemini Feed” begins with Banks bleating out the song’s chorus over piano chords deconstructed off the track. Only then does the beat kick in. In opening The Altar this way, Banks paints a celebratory ode to the constructive process behind her chorus-building.

The choruses that follow are euphoric even in the melancholy of Banks’ emotional revelations. Her writing is clean, direct and sophisticated. Qualitatively, The Altar has, within its 12-track stretch, some of the best-written, best-assembled choruses of this past year. “Fuck with Myself” builds cheeky, obvious double entendre in a chorus of “I fuck with myself more than anyone else.” “Weaker Girl” collapses at the chorus, with an exhausted Banks dejectedly admitting to the partner she’s about to break it off with that she just needs a “bad motherfucker like me.”

Many of her romantic focal points center on ghosting and gaslighting, two deeply modern phenomena with damaging effect. It seems fitting to attribute this as one of the most paramount investigations into the romantic era of ghosting when one considers Banks’ roots in and inspiration from witch house.

One can hear influences of early witch house pioneers Glass Teeth and Holy Other, as well as contemporary pop figure Zola Jesus barefaced in Banks’ work. As if her allegiances to the witch house aesthetic weren’t clear enough, Banks went out of her way to name two of her last tracks “Haunt” and “Poltergeist.”

Elegant, chewed-up industrial goth noise and warbling drone synths have been embedded deep into The Altar. Banks scythes through dense thickets of her witch house rain forest, creating impressions of the deep, wet, impenetrable dusks of her love life.

Banks doesn’t appear to shy away from her influences. She holds each up like a jewel, publicly examining with unabashed pride her appreciation for those artists whom she deemed worthy enough to shape her work. She often revels in those embarrassing conventions of pop music: appropriation and amalgamation of earlier music, building energy in the bridge with R&B vocals and belting it when the break hits.

For an artist without a strong internet presence, Banks seems to understand where the culture is sitting this year on pop music. With so much energy online pushing to make pop music the hippest, coolest genre, Banks’ unembarrassed embrace of pop convention is a bold act at the right time. Banks — ever ready to smirk and inaudibly raise her middle finger at loud, doltish masculinity — crafted the quintessential silly pop album about boys and then flipped the script.

The intellectual sophistication of her lyricism is unparalleled. The hipness of her vapor-umbrella occult production is indisputable. Banks, in constructing The Altar, built the coolest pop album she could, both as a testament to the refinement of traditionally feminine culture and also as an ode to her own deeply polished womanhood.

Sure, it’s all love. But for Banks, fucking with yourself yields a love worth picking up off the mantle.

Justin Knight writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on building identity by consuming culture. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.