Subgenres: they’re useful until they’re not.
There’s this joke in Parks and Rec about different color shades (okay, it’s an old joke, but the version I’m thinking of is from Parks and Rec). Parks and Recreation employee Tom Haverford is tasked with finding an appropriately colored ribbon for Pawnee, Indiana’s memorial service in memory of miniature horse/local hero Li’l Sebastian. The foppish Tom looks over a tray of black ribbons (probably) the exact same shade, and when his tragically Midwestern coworker Gerry says they’re all black, Tom snidely identifies each ribbon’s shade by its proper name, from obsidian to “Void, by Armani,” and laughs at him for his lack of culture.
It’s an exchange that comes up whenever I think about how I categorize Banks’ subgenre: is she closer to the dark, synth-heavy, personal, clattering sound of alternative pop like Lorde; or the midnight, electronic, sensual thump of alt-R&B acts like The Weeknd or fka twigs? Like Haverford’s onyx and rolling black out, there’s a lot of common ground between the two, like the idea in some circles that they’re the bleeding edge of popular music artistry, and any artist working with these subgenres should always push them further.
Banks turns over the conventions of alt-R&B/electro-pop on The Altar more than she advances them, but does so with a hitherto unseen deftness and sense of songcraft that results in a solidly enjoyable LP. Alt-R&B in particular is supposed to be groundbreaking, but Banks almost defiantly colors inside the lines, and made a sturdy lowercase a album while doing so. Instead of the challenging structure like an Event Album, The Altar follows the vintage album format: frontloaded with fiveish songs that either are singles or could be singles (plus one that should), a cooler if still interesting enough middle section with at least one stylistic cul-de-sac, a few filler tracks buried toward the end, and then a rally with the closer. It even gives you that sweet, sweet 13 songs in 45 minute run time–the hour-long network procedural of album lengths. If any of that reads as a knock, I swear it isn’t: The Altar has great replay value.
It’s also decidedly an improvement over Banks’ 2014 debut Goddess. Goddess is Banks’ Kiss Land: the mostly botched attempt at translating groundswell from quickly released and well received mixtapes/EPs into mainstream success. Alterna-hit “Beggin For Thread” worked, but overall the album is punishingly too long, too slow, and frequently aims for mysterious but lands at underwritten; imagine Lana Del Rey or The Weeknd himself at their least interesting, but forever. The Altar does away with the “too long” problem by lopping off about 13 minutes of clutter, counters being too slow by punching up the tempo and tightening up the songs, and drops the “mysterious” playact in favor for songs that spit venom.
The improvements are obvious as early as opener “Gemini Feed.” Banks stays poised over a fleet of different keyboards, loops, and surprisingly kicking drums while telling off an ex-lover from a toxic, enabling relationship and her newfound confidence stays with her over the course of The Altar. In fact, on lead single “Fuck with Myself,” it’s kinda the point; Banks exudes confidence in the song’s lyrics–“fucking with myself” is another way of saying “I don’t fuck with you,” after all–and in her more varied vocals. She still uses a hushed singing voice across the album, but it’s less of a default and more just one of a few different vocal tricks she deploys, like jumping into her upper register, using a vocoder, or double-tracking with a pitched down take. On a song like the standout “Trainwreck,” the digitized vocals on the chorus match the witchy mood set by the icy synths and hard snares, where Banks sounds as angrily glitchy as the music behind her. If anything on The Altar ends up getting radio play, “Trainwreck” is going to be it: there’s a solid hook there, and the track’s trap/electro influences would be right at home on most pop FM.
Other times, especially in the album’s early run, she’s able to do more without as many flourishes. “Lovesick” has a gentle thump and groove, and even if it runs a little long, “Mind Games” gets mileage out of the “ethereal alt-R&B ballad with the fuzzy, whispery synths and sparse drums” trope. The mid-section between “This Is Not About Us” and “Judas” is your make or break: either you’re fine with the acoustic-based and overly raw “Mother Earth” and 3 other accompanying midtempo-ish electro-tracks, or you’re checking out. This stretch, while not as powerful as the opening salvo, is a testament to Banks’ consistency: she’s able to crack out pop songs going 8 or 9 tracks deep without falling off because of how broad The Altar is musically and thematically. There are only minor bumps in the middle, like “Weaker Girl” being a little limp, or the over-sangin’ on “Mother Earth.” But, like most rank and file albums, The Altar runs out of momentum before it runs out of songs; the trio of songs after “Judas” and before towering closer “27 Hours” is just redundant and uninteresting. But still, it’s great enough that it’s worth a listen by anyone who goes for alt, electronic, pop, R&B, and any combination thereof.
So why wasn’t it a bigger thing?
Banks has the misfortune of trying to hack it during music’s most niche-ified era. The pop charts are more or less a split between inconsequential one-offs, and whichever 7 megastar pop celebrities are active at a given moment, and the music press coalesces around the obscure, the Important, and the artistes. As a result, music’s middle class of genre artists and capable if not mind-blowing acts that would normally be a steady presence have kinda disappeared outside their own fandoms. Did you know that–to name a few–folks like The Head and the Heart, Usher, Fantasia, The Pretty Reckless, Grouplove, Two Door Cinema Club, and Ingrid Michaelson all put out albums this year? Those acts all have serious followings and are making mainstream music, but there’s little room for them and their music in the conversation. And I’m not saying any of those are unheralded masterpieces, but does everything have to be? Why can’t an adult alternative album be just that? Or why can’t we relish a former American Idol winner singing like she was born to? On The Altar Banks doesn’t challenge our societal more or push a sound forward. She just makes good music.