Album Review: BANKS – Serpentina

[AWAL; 2022]

In short supply is the person who not only looks inward but shares what they’ve discovered about themselves – all good, bad and ugly – with a judgemental public. Yet ever since her brazen arrival on the music scene in 2013, singer-songwriter Jillian Banks has delved into her psyche openly. With her glacially raspy tone, Banks has developed a laudable reputation for her ability to create gut-punching personal tracks wrapped in sharp, idiosyncratic production. Sure, she was originally touted as the next alternative R&B superstar but with each progressive project from Goddess to now, Banks has proven herself versatile and experimental while still maintaining the essence of her artistic self.

Arriving after a particularly tumultuous period in her personal life is her latest album Serpentina, a 13-track journey of pain and rebirth. Her first independent release finds Banks being as unflinching as ever, her lyrics as pointed as an ice-pick and just as heartbreaking. Yet, much like her wholly underrated prior albums The Altar and III, there is also warmth and self-confidence shining through the brambly soundscapes. Her emotional spectrum is conveyed and, similarly, a detailed range of sounds and styles are present throughout this album showing her multi-faceted nature as an artist.

Album opener “Misunderstood” is a clattering and chaotic ode that essentially invites the listener to interpret and take from her music whatever they desire – she is unbothered either way; “If I had just one penny for every time somebody didn’t get me / I wouldn’t need this hustle man,” she sings candidly. It’s something of an introductory statement for the album, with Banks finding a certain liberation in simply crafting and singing what she wants, regardless of the reception.

We then proceed to the sexual jousting of “Meteorite”, which consists of an instrumental built from her vocal chants before it transforms into a medieval Midsommar-esque romp between the sheets. The track finds Banks in a sexual tryst where both parties are playing it far too cool; “If you wanna call this a secret, I’ll keep it locked up / I know how to swim far and you like it deep / So we may as well jump”. With its sparse synth-work and rollicking tempo, the song’s eroticism is a new side to Banks, who seems more overt than ever singing “I’mma leave my inhibitions at your door / Like a meteorite / Let’s go to space, then to the floor.” It’s a magical moment with a slight ominousness that only Banks can imbue.

Contributing to this romantic confidence and aloofness is the conventional R&B-trap “Fuck Love”, where Banks realises she gets more satisfaction from her artistic pursuits than romantic notions – and if a person wants her they will have to chase for it; “I’ll be on the road when you want it / Kiss me on the go if you want it.” However, there is also an underlying frustration surrounding sabotage in the chorus where Banks directly admits: “I don’t know shit about love / I keep on fucking it up.” The track is strikingly fun and sassy which displays her ability to create earworms perfectly. Similarly, “Anything 4 U” is an alluring R&B bop that feels seductive and hypnotic as Banks sings “I say you shouldn’t do something I wouldn’t do / The problem is I’d do just anything for you.” It’s less cold and more an urgent proclamation of devotion that feels like a gentler “Gimme.”

Serpentina’s missteps are few and even then, not so much a misstep as a light stumble easily recovered from. Lead single “The Devil”, which possesses the same energy as “Fuck With Myself”, is a dark pop ode to facing a metaphorical hell and becoming all the stronger for it. “I’m the devil and I speed with the pedal on the gas / And I think I like the feel,” she triumphantly chants in a ritualistic whisper. However, despite its audaciousness and empowerment, the production feels slightly hollow even though many boxes are ticked – including a frightening sample of screaming right before the chorus.

Her multi-faceted nature becomes almost comically apparent on the song’s contrasting counterpart “Spirit”. An unexpectedly joyous gospel track featuring soulful vocals from Sahmont, Banks sings an ode to encouragement; “Baby when I feel like / Feel like giving up / Something in my spirit tells me I ain’t had enough.” The thing is, this isn’t her being ironic or tongue-in-cheek; it’s sincere even though it seems it shouldn’t be on such an album. Yet while approaches this genre with earnestness, the listener may find themselves raising their eyebrows in puzzlement. Then there’s album closer “I Still Love You” which is a warm, bittersweet piano ballad that is reminiscent of 90s Fiona Apple. Banks does have a tendency to end her albums with a heart-rendering pared-back track yet, despite its tenderness, this song feels a bit anticlimactic for such an intense project.

Banks is truly at her peak when confronting her decaying relationships – where she allows the venom and hurt to seep out. The gloomy piano-led R&B ballad “Deadend” is a prime example of how heartbreaking Banks can be. “I love you even though / You don’t talk to me any longer / There’s something I wanna know / Did you leave me for good?” she sings quietly across the minimal production. It details a certain relationship purgatory where things haven’t quite ended but remain on a precipice, balancing precariously and leaning to fall. “I don’t want another dead end / But I want a love to live in / If you don’t want to admit it / Let me be the one who killed it,” she sings on the chorus, desperately willing to end the relationship if it means they’re both free. With progressive intensity in the production including added strings and the repeated refrain of “I’m done”, Banks spins a tragic tearjerking tale of something beyond repair.

Album highlight “Unleaveable” is a wintry delight that has Banks calling out a person for the mixed signals that ultimately led to their relationship’s demise. “I used to like it when you were mean / It made me feel like I was special if you loved me,” she admits with a slight edge in her voice. With thrumming beats, dirge-like synths and misty piano, Banks gives this partner of hers the coldest gaze possible as she realises she’s been had; “You teach me how to run since you’re leading me on / And I’ll teach you something ‘bout love / But you already know / I knew it wasn’t safe what I was leaning on.” Even the appropriate paired tracks “Burn” – a dark, electronic ballad about giving all of your energy to someone who doesn’t appreciate it – and “Birds By The Sea” – a plaintive portrait of regret seeing the one you loved moving on – jolt the soul in their honesty and rawness.

Serpentina is another revealing dive into the brain of Banks and proves that you must confront your darkness in order to grow. Whether she’s being sassy and empowered, heartbroken and wrathful, or warm and nurturing, Banks approaches her subject matter with her honest powers of discernment. While it may prove inconsistent to some, the experimentation and exploration ensures the album remains exciting, as you never know what’s arriving next. If the intention of this album was to show a rebirth, it succeeds, as Banks seems reinvigorated and ready to fearlessly conquer the demons that dare cross her path.