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Banks - III Music Album Reviews

While the brooding pop singer can’t always shake the anodyne songwriting that plagued her past work, III is still Banks’ best album to date.

In 2013, Jillian Banks emerged as a poster girl for brooding, twilight-hours pop. She made all the right moves for an artist working in the burgeoning “alternative R&B” space: She committed to a monochromatic aesthetic, linked up with trendy collaborators, and commissioned Hype Machine-ready remixes. It worked, to an extent. Following a stint opening for the Weeknd, Banks became a relatively well-known name. Yet despite impressive stream counts, even her biggest singles weren’t quite enough to push her over the edge. Her signature sound relied on cookie-cutter production and “indie-pop voice” that weren’t hard to find elsewhere. With her latest album, III, Banks seems eager to reestablish her footing and take greater creative risks. While she can’t always shake the anodyne songwriting that plagued her past work, it’s still her best album to date.

Other than Banks herself, the most prominent presence on III is producer and Bon Iver collaborator BJ Burton, who produces or co-produces 10 of the album’s 13 tracks. He brings his unique bag of tricks—the Messina vocal harmonizer technique popularized on 22, A Million, the apocalyptic distortion that defined Low’s Double Negative. Paired with Banks’ voice, these strategies work wonders, and album opener “Till Now” sets the tone with liberal doses of both. A song like “Stroke” may lack lyrical finesse—“Say it’s hard to breathe inside my ocean/I give you the deep, but you’re still floating”—but flanked by Burton’s growling fuzz, Banks stands confident, smirking as waves of low-end crash around her.

On its face, lead single “Gimme” is another haughty banger about unfulfilled lust. But where on past albums it may have sounded lifeless, Banks’ voice sears through “Gimme” like twisted metal. Hudson Mohawke’s speaker-busting drums and bass blasts undergird a syncopated synth line reminiscent of Justin Timberlake’s classic “My Love.” Ballad “Hawaiian Mazes” strikes a diaristic tone against a melancholy backdrop of piano and old-world string trills, courtesy of Frank Ocean musical director Buddy Ross. “Telling me why you left and then complain you’re alone and I don’t know why,” Banks cries at the song’s apex. Though her lyrics can be as stilted as ever (“I tried my best to follow, but you moving too fast on ya daddy long legs”), the stream-of-consciousness style works far better than more playlist-ready fare.

When Banks does attempt the latter, she stumbles. The lone collaboration, “Look What You’re Doing to Me,” featuring Francis and the Lights, fails to extract a memorable melody from either party. “Alaska” half-heartedly pursues a pseudo-dancehall vibe that never finds its rhythm, while “If We Were Made of Water” tries to rebottle the quivering magic of “Warm Water,” Banks’ similarly aquatic 2013 breakout single. When she sings, “Maybe if you say it again, change some words around, maybe I’ll believe you then,” she’s also speaking on behalf of her listeners.

The most interesting moments on III tap into life experiences beyond doomed relationships. On “The Fall,” a sharp-tongued critique of the music industry co-written with Miguel, Banks adopts the perspective of a record company bigwig and attacks herself viciously, painting a picture of gaslighting and sexualization that scans all too familiar. It’s not her best vocal performance—Banks can sound brittle through Auto-Tune, and rap-singing isn’t her forte—but it’s one of the only times we glimpse the real Jillian Banks, ostensibly the driving force behind all these songs. Seven years after her debut, III brings the overblown excitement around her career to an official close. With the death of that hype, she’s finally delivered a record that gives her room to expand.

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