Banks was featured in my 2014 Hype season earlier this year and she has kept us on tenterhooks ever since. There have been a steady drip-feed of new tracks and videos since her breakthrough London EP and it is fair to say there is a fair amount of anticipation around debut album Goddess.
Goddess has two main weaknesses. It suffers from that typical 'first album' challenge: if you have been following Banks for some time you will probably know half of the tracks on this album, and what's more of the new tracks that are introduced for the first time not all of them are as strong. It makes sense that much of the best material would have already been used to build anticipation, yet I can't help but wish there was something as strong as Brain or The Waiting Game hidden away here. And that is the album's second weakness - there are somewhat inevitable moments of slight flabbiness here. Stick follows a slew of Banks' biggest tracks and it just feels like padding in comparison.
Yet there is an awful lot here that Banks gets right. Her vocals retain the dusty and worn feel that stood out so much on early those early tracks. The production credits read like a who's who in modern pop: SOHN, Lil Silva, Shlomo and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs all feature, and almost every track has moments that glisten: I challenge you to listen to the drum break and vocal chorus in the closing third of Beggin' For Thread and not dance around your kitchen like a fool.
Banks spends the majority of this email detailing broken relationships and, sometimes willingly, playing the victim. Yet she almost always brings something to these stories, whether it is a revealing emotional honesty or a statement on the challenges that persist for women in our modern times. And this is a marked difference between Banks and her contemporary and early touring partner The Weeknd - rather than highlighting the excess and excessive masculinity in the music and culture of R&B and pop generally, Banks takes more of a realist's approach.
Title track and single Goddess paints a picture of relationship abuse, the title transitioning from what could appear a strange and unfortunate marketing own-goal into a rallying cry and a celebration of femininity in the face of oppression, Banks biting - "Fucking with a goddess and you get a little colder". Change tackles the same subject matter - "Baby don't go ... I'll change I swear" pleads the subject in the chorus, in response to which Banks has little patience: "Say it ain't your fault / Because you had an emotionally abusive daddy / And cause of this you don't know how to act / Poor poor baby".
Waiting Game remains both Banks and producer SOHN's best work to date, slow and minimal it, rumbles with sadness and resignation. Something here isn't quite right - it describes two musicians in a long-distance relationship, they both appear trapped by it. Is the stage Banks pictures herself and her lover on a literal one or does it betray them as actors, the relationship surface deep. Allusions to infidelity ("What if the way we started made it something cursed from the start?") describe a relationship soured and yet an inability to overcome inertia.
Of the new tracks several do stand out. Fuck Em Only We Know seems to be an ernest love song and yet it could almost be a cynical dig at the self-delusion that comes with the most powerful of emotions. Either way it chorus represents a soaring me-and-you-against-the-world moment. Someone New is presumably directed at Banks' partner from before her recent fame (whether current or not) - it details the worry and friction incumbent in having a loved one travel constantly for their career. It is a brutal portrayal of relationship difficulties and Banks' position is one of devastation.
Quieter moments like Someone New and album closer Under The Table show Banks' more emotional naked side. That final track sees Banks begging for a chance with the subject of her affection: "Please tell me this could be easy, I'm tired of waiting for permission to love". Her desperation and desire closes out Goddess with another painfully exposed line: "I'd still do it even if we were cursed / Won't you be my problem, it's okay with me if it hurts". It's one of the albums most populist and anthemic moments, almost as if Banks wanted to prove she could be just as mainstream and Adele if she wanted. She has chosen a different path for her pop music - these ebony-dark slabs of instrumentation, alien and minimal drum patterns and pads are a far better backdrop for her pain and desire.
Much of the press this album has received seems to get caught up in some of the attendant baggage: the production, Banks' looks, the fact this is ultimately pop music, that this is an album largely focused on the emotional narrative of a young women. None of this should surprise and yet it says something about the attitude of the press that these are the aspects used to frame the album: Goddess lacks restraint with production, it is insufficiently mature, it doesn't do enough to justify the position of Banks as an 'indie' artist. I've tried to judge this album on the merits of what it attempts to be: a better, more sophisticated pop album. By that measure, it's a significant achievement.