Singer-songwriter Banks’ work is best when it immerses the listener in her beautiful and aching worlds. Her 2016 album, “The Altar,” set the artist's magical singing over moody, skeletal soundscapes. Single “F*uck with Myself,” a particularly airy piece from the same album, is both pained and playful, showcasing her standout, ethereal vocals. Her music also can be riveting: hear 2019’s ferocious “Gimme,” a howling expression of strong, assured female sexuality. “Serpentina,” Banks' latest album, shows her experimenting with a new sound and different vocal approaches. Even so, she fails to fully capitalize on her top-tier singing or to deliver very many new Banks classics to keep in rotation.
“Serpentina” is an unashamedly synthetic sonic universe. While many songs from Banks’ previous album, “III,” featured distinctly digital instrumentation, this album has a much cleaner presentation— that is, as opposed to the sonic storms that were so evocative on “III.” For the most part, the production here is less memorable than that of her previous work. A noteworthy exception, however, is the choral burst in the chorus of “Holding Back.” Banks’ voice is pitched up like a Golden Age hip-hop sample as drums smash beneath her crying, and the whole thing is practically begging to be sampled.
On the whole, the more neutral production approach places Banks’ performance at the center of these songs. While her musical compositions are seldom lacking, her lyrics, which are often either too esoteric or too blunt, can be distracting. Banks’ vocal performances sometimes manage to overcome her lyrical shortcomings, sweeping the listener away with ease, but her voice sometimes sounds strained as it stretches to new heights. The singer also displays more tonal range here than before, capturing a newfound sassiness in her higher register on the aforementioned “Holding Back” and captivating listeners with percussive breathing and ad-libbing that punctuates the primal beat in “Meteorite.” She even comes close to rapping in the chorus of the latter song, and while this turn only lasts for a moment, it is so fun that one hopes she explores it for a full verse in the future. (She also approaches rapping on “The Fall” from “III” and is an absolute natural there.)
There is one instant highlight on this album: the opening track, “Misunderstood.” Banks has never sounded more confident than while crooning over thundering keys and synths and punctuating her verses with authentic cheekiness. “If I had just one dollar for / Every time somebody didn’t listen, I wouldn’t need these vocals, man,” she sings in the second verse. When she turns from the recurring money motif to the frank and funny boasting of her performance prowess, one can almost feel her smiling in the studio. “But I still got my mic in hand,” she continues in a tone that makes the weak lyrics irrelevant, her voice alone capturing the feeling of achieving a long-sought freedom. Still, reservations linger. The pain in the composition, especially its aching start with a sputtering synth alone in the stereo, and the piercing refrain of “Please let me be misunderstood,” one of Banks’ best lines, paint a fuller picture. If “Serpentina” is Banks probing her possibilities and testing her skills, “Misunderstood” displays her greatest strength: building sonic worlds by intertwining smart, unorthodox production with a generationally great voice.
Label: AWAL Recordings
Favorite tracks: “Misunderstood,” “Burn,” “Holding Back”
If you like: Electropop
Shamrocks: 2.5 out of 5