Blood red everywhere. It drips down a black, lace couture dress, one that has been ripped and tattered, with several pieces strewn across a marble floor. Jillian Banks, known as BANKS, is powerful. She is slow, pensive, rational, and sneaky. She waits for her prey. She is a Goddess.
Yet, as BANKS moves into her second album, The Altar, the red and black fade into monochrome grey, a possible metaphorical representation of her own real-life depression. Much like her first album, Goddess, The Altar is moody, dark and emotionally climactic. Her soothingly low voice, coupled with moments of raspiness and deep-throated reflection, is the perfect combination to convey themes of love lost, love rejected, love ignored and love almost-complete. While the majority of the songs in The Altar focus on an ex-lover, BANKS also explores her vulnerability and instability, forging an internal battle over her emotional complexities and inconsistent nature.
In the opening song off her sophomore album, The Altar, the ethereal singer calls out her ex for his passive aggressiveness and for the ways he convinced her she wasn’t loved; yet, she also goes into explicit detail about how hard she tried to fix things with her thousands of ‘I-love-you’s’, which she further contradicts by the lingering sexual tones of wanting her ex to kiss her thighs “because they’re lonely”. The techno backing track to “Gemini Feed”, which sounds eerily like a heartbeat at times, adds a nice touch as BANKS’ voice ebbs in and out. What BANKS perfectly exemplifies here are the complexities of love and relationships, along with the mental instability that a toxic relationship can create in both people. Part of her still lingers for the relationship between her and her ex, yet the other part acknowledges that together they were a “Gemini Feed”, meaning as their relationship progressed over time, the two became increasingly self-destructive.
However, “Gemini Feed” acts as a reference to BANKS’ astrological sign, Gemini, which is represented by a pair of twins. With her ex, their ‘similarities’, or twin-like interests, were essentially their issues, and thus this resulted in their only commonality being “we were so depressive”. The codependency and abuse fueled their destructive relationship, like two Gemini's feeding off each other but in the worst way possible. In the music video for the song, BANKS plays two distinct characters as a reflection of this relationship — one who wears all black (and even a facial mask at one point) to capture the darkness of their love and one who wears all white (innocence) and is consistently held back in bondage by the ‘darker’ character. Even when the camera is fixated on the 'innocent' BANKS, there are flashes to the darker character, signaling that even when things are going well in their relationship, there's a constant undercurrent of darkness waiting to seep through. But it also seems that this darker character represents BANKS’ own dark side and how hard she tries to repress it and keep it under control. At 1:29 in the music video, there is a brief flash of BANKS wearing the black mask, with a hole around her left eye, before the shot quickly switches back to BANKS without the mask in the same black dress. The fact that only one eye can see through the mask serves as an allusion to how, when the relationship starts becoming toxic, both people are somewhat aware (one eye open) of the destruction that is starting to transpire, but both are also blinded by what’s happening and so they are stuck in an endless loop of codependence and ruination. It is the ending of the video that is perhaps most surprising as we see both versions of BANKS lying together in a way that appears much like a Yin-Yang symbol. Is she trying to tell us that there cannot be light without darkness, and that the only way for love to flourish is for both sides to find a way to work together? Is the Yin-Yang symbol supposed to be a depiction of her relationship with her ex? Or is it supposed to be a reflection of her inner mind? Is it both?
This notion of inner duality continues as we move from “Gemini Feed” to “Fuck With Myself”. The cover art for the song shows BANKS caressing a hairless version of herself, red lipstick and all. The use of what sounds like a harp and isolating string notes in the beginning establishes a creepy, and unusual aura; by using such an ominous and chilling backing track as she sings about how she ‘fucks with herself’ more than anyone else, BANKS forces us to pay a greater amount of detail to her words. As a result, her open declarations of ‘fucking with herself’ are both honest and powerful in combination with her choice of instrumentals. “‘Cause I fuck with myself more than anybody else” is sung throughout the song at different pitches - high, a bare-whisper, and a somewhat guttural version; it almost feels as if BANKS is singing from a different personality, or side of herself, each time. She sprinkles “It’s all love” after several of the lines, as if she doesn’t want us to confuse that she in fact ‘fucks’ with herself out of an attempt of self-love, and not self-hatred; which is quite an odd declaration because the act of ‘fucking with yourself’ is generally assumed to be a negative act towards oneself. This idea is eerily reminiscent of “And I Drove You Crazy” from her first album, Goddess. She sings, “All I wanted was to lift each other up” in remark about her relationship with her significant other, but in the background her gentle voice lulls “And I drove you crazy”. It seems that BANKS’ attempts at something positive are often riddled with negative repercussions, whether outright or lurking somewhere in the background. After all, lurking is what BANKS seems to do best.
But to see “Fuck with Myself” come to life, one must watch the music video - a video which stretches our imaginations and leaves us feeling uncomfortable and uneasy. As though a page has been taken out of the movie The Exorcist, the music video for “Fuck With Myself” is freaky and concerning. It opens up with flashes and out-of-focus shots of what appears to be BANKS; one shot is of her head down, with arms spread out across her body as though she is pinned to a cross. The last image we see before the song starts is that of a sculptural bust of BANKS - hairless - that has been set aflame.
Throughout the song, BANKS caresses this hairless, naked version of herself, singing to it, playing with it, and tracing her finger around its red lips. She also sings to herself, naked, in a mirror that as we see later in the video, is propped up by BANKS on the other side of it, naked again. Other shots in the video appear to be recorded inside a large shipping container in which BANKS and other dancers wearing latex, full-body suits with photos of robotic-like faces on their heads, dance. The dancing is awkward, disconnected, and roughly jutting. Her own relationship with herself is a question that neither she nor we can answer. At the end of the video, BANKS sets the bust of her hairless self, which she has scribbled red lipstick all over, on fire. The final shot is a close-up of her staring at the camera, holding the lighter near her red lips before it wavers out.
This nuance of internal struggle is a mainstay in The Altar; it’s grappling of sorts between the various archetypes that BANKS takes on. More so, this duality and duplicity of self that BANKS plays with is eerily noticeable in “Poltergeist”, in which lyrics like “Oh my god, I think I saw a ghost, Follow me everywhere I go,” makes us question whether the ‘ghost’ is in fact a shadow self of BANKS. Though she indicated in an interview that after the fallout of her relationship with her ex, it felt as if he was stalking her and haunting her thoughts (which also inspired her other song on this album, “Haunt”), the way BANKS reflects on her mistakes in the first two lines of “Poltergeist” make us think otherwise. “I started all of the the wars, I started all of the wars” and “You mistaking all my mistakes for my crooked nature” pose the question of whether BANKS is speaking about herself and also to herself in those lines; after all, her echoing voice mumbles that she is the one that ‘started the wars’, not once but twice in the same line. Her crooked nature may be a reference to her own, and actual, personal mental health issues since BANKS has openly spoken about struggling with depression; she’s stated that she’s struggled with depression since she was younger, and that "It hits me every few years or so.”
The raspy guttural throat-like sound that opens up “Poltergeist” resembles that of a lingering poltergeist, but instead of one that is in her room or house, it’s inside her head. When she sings, “Don’t even try to get creative, I smell a clown looking goofy, dressed up as a native”, BANKS is both the clown and the singer; she calls the clown out for trying to pretend to be a native even though she can smell its true nature. In a way, maybe it’s the part of her that tries to be goofy or pretend that things are going great, but no matter what, her true, native side (re: depressive) always comes through for it is the true native here. For the live performance of “Poltergeist” at the Guggenheim 2016 Gala, BANKS wore a multi-feathered headband and engaged in abstract, bodily motions (like in the “Fuck With Myself” video). The background dancers played with the transparent cloths around their bodies, and like BANKS, moved in a disjointed and rough way. BANKS appeared forlorn as she sang, and joined the dancers throughout the performance in the awkward, bone jutting-like moves.
Like “Poltergeist”, “Haunt” also follows down a path of spiritual presence and the paranormal. However, “Haunt” which precedes “Poltergeist” in the album listing of The Altar, starts off differently than the rest of the songs and actually takes us somewhere we wouldn’t quite expect BANKS to go. Cricket and bird-like noises paint a picture of a tropical rainforest and when BANKS and a backing vocal track of ‘Heyeahyeah’ vocals start, the setting feels tribal and nomadic, as if we’re sitting around a nighttime campfire in the forest, surrounded by tall trees and ominous, watchful yellow-eyes. ”Haunt” is fast-paced, with a rhythmic drum beat that props BANKS, who openly sings “You messed me up when you let me go.” But with the backing track, BANKS’ words don’t carry the same emotional weight and feel somewhat empty. When she sings “It’s like I wanna know I’m someone”, that is when “Haunt”’s contradicting nature makes sense to us. The quickness of the beat seems to reflect how her ex is trying to get back into her life and so she asks “What do you want?”, since he is essentially haunting her while she tries to figure out who she is post-breakup. But, her ex isn’t letting her heal and figure herself out by his constantly surrounding her. “It’s like I wanna know I’m some” is a powerful indicator of BANKS’ emotional state as she chooses to say “some” this time and not “someone” instead. Here, BANKS just wants to know that she is “some”; the omission of ‘one’ from some is calculated and we are left wondering what ‘some’ she wants to be. Something? Her ex’s someone again? Her own ‘someone’ maybe? An "own" as opposed to nothing?
While there are moments of inner strength that BANKS displays in The Altar to show her ex, and herself, that she is fine without him and that it is him who needs her, “Lovesick” seems to throw that all out the window as BANKS’ pleads to her ex to come and love her, and call her his “baby, baby, baby”. “Cause I’m lovesick, I ain’t even ashamed, oh oh” goes against many of the other lyrics in The Altar, including but not limited to: “I had to get away, I had to get away, ay-ay” and “There is no fixing to the problem when you're talking to an idiot” (in “Trainwreck”), and “Maybe I'm just better off alone” (in “Judas”). Perhaps that is why “Fuck With Myself” precedes “Lovesick” in the song order, as this is one way in which BANKS ‘fucks’ with herself - by being lovesick and addicted to this destructive love. The melody to “Lovesick” is sweet and innocent and BANKS’ voice is soothing, like warm tea with honey, as she lingers on every word a second longer than needed to.
From an initial listen, the song feels like a small beacon of hope that BANKS has for love and what it could be — that even when love is difficult and tough, she still wants to experience the pure nature of love that she believes can be warm and nurturing. But then she goes and alludes to sex, singing “And I'm hard up for some time in your sheets, oh oh”, which raises the question of whether she’s actually ‘love sick’ or just sick of being physically alone with herself. The only explanation we have for all these clashing ideas comes from BANKS herself in “Mind Games” with the lines, “Bet I look amusing, ‘Cause my addiction to these contradictions make it confusing”. She’s both addicted to being lovesick and these mind games, while also denouncing them and trying to get away from them. If anything, not only was her relationship with her ex a “Gemini Feed”, but also her relationship with herself is her own personal “Gemini Feed”.
Keeping in mind that that human beings are not one-dimensional as we listen to The Altar allows us to better understand BANKS and why she ventures with us through the various realms within herself. The album serves as a reflection of BANKS’ various personalities, coupled with her own internal understandings and views on love and relationships. She herself has stated in interviews that it is a representation of her bringing all of these personal feelings and struggles out into the open. Unlike the wedding altar BANKS sings about in “Gemini Feed” that she wanted her ex to take her to, The Altar is not white, pure and wholesome. In actuality, it’s grey, murky and complex — just like love and just like BANKS.