Review: Banks, Goddess

The occasionally wonderful debut album from Banks is ultimately an exercise in unrealized potential.
Banks Goddess

opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >

If “alternative” had any meaning when it modified “rock” back in the early 1990s, it was as a descriptor for artists working within the dominant genre of the time, who were actively subverting its commercial appeal while also embodying its fundamental principles. We know how that story played out. The rebels replaced the establishment, ruled the culture for a bit, and then eventually lost influence when faced with a small group of worthy progeny and a tidal wave of awful copycats. R&B is in the first throes of a similar upheaval and readjustment. Beyoncé’s latest album would have exploded minds just a few years ago. Now it’s simply celebrated for being an exemplar of current fashions, whenever the conversation veers away from the innovative method of its release. The pioneers of R&B’s “alternative” sound – such as The Weeknd, Miguel, How To Dress Well, and to a lesser degree Janelle Monáe – have pivoted toward accessibility. The most exciting R&B work of 2014, FKA twigs’ LP1, flaunts its outré leanings while also recalling the easy allure of Aaliyah, a thoroughly mainstream artist who perished two years before Beyoncé went solo.

Rather than attempting to start a new paragraph, or even a new sentence, Jillian Banks’ debut album Goddess arrives as a footnote to this narrative. It marks the moment when the fresh has fully aged into the conventional. This isn’t something to fret over or disparage, but the natural result of novelty meeting the passage of time. Banks carves her own niche nevertheless, one that splits the difference between throbbing mid-tempo jams in the manner of her recent tour mate Abel Tesfaye and the acoustic balladry of her early hero Fiona Apple, particularly the wrenching anthems found on Tidal.

Goddess only coheres if you're partial to both styles. I don’t blink when the tender and folky “Someone New” appears between “Change” and “Warm Water,” two cuts that hew closer to contemporary tastes. But I suspect many listeners will find the mixture of on-trend (the buzzing “Waiting Game”) and near-schlock (the gorgeous closer “Under the Table”) jolting, if not a complete deal breaker. Banks’ vocal instrument can be striking, however, especially when its force and pitch reaches skyward. Her best songs usually offer more than the spare accompaniment of piano chords and guitar strums. It’s a shame all of her strengths intersect just once, on Goddess’ excellent lead single “Brain,” where machine-made textures adorn a triumphant vocal melody.

Goddess leaves a fleeting impression, despite its consistent and tuneful pull, because the artist at its center remains a cipher. The sense of mystery and surprise that elevated The Weeknd’s mixtapes doesn’t translate to Banks’ take on media aversion: a half-measure of secrecy and openness, no doubt genuine, which nonetheless carries the whiff of a calculated marketing strategy. Unlike the nihilistic asshole who narrated House of Balloons, lyrics alone fail to illuminate the person singing on Goddess.

Banks’ debut, sometimes promising and even wonderful, could have been revelatory. I’ll register my disappointment by agreeing with the title of my favorite track. It’s a soaring piano ballad called “You Should Know Where I’m Coming From.” I want to. C+