Banks Returns Recharged and Magnified With Evocative ‘III’

After a two-year hiatus of plenty soul-searching and personal growth, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Jillian Banks, simply known as Banks, has returned with a thrilling new album, “III.” The modest title belies the scope of the undertaking, as this release marks a striking new progression in terms of both sound and concept. The record documents the singer’s journey through a cycle of emotions and realizations, tracing her journey through romanticism, reality checks, wisdom, empathy, and ultimately greater love. The new songs pick up where Banks left off, retaining the signature sound introduced on her 2012 debut “Goddess” and further developed on 2014’s “The Altar.” This time, however, everything is deeper, darker, and more thoroughly realized.

Aptly titled opener “Till Now” signals a new phase, and it only takes moments for the gravity of the development to sink in. Banks starts scat singing in a mellifluous tone, her every syllable juxtaposed with sputters of dark, muffled bass. Multiple vocal lines, pitched down to various extents, quickly pile over one another, unfold and cleave into multitudinous forms in an arrangement recalling some of James Blakes’ dense vocal experiments. The emergent futuristic, concerted cacophony is replete with raging thunderclaps, heavy breathing, and slickly shifting rhythms that bring out the conflicting emotions of “I hate you much / And I hate the way I miss you sometimes,” before reaching a climax with the portentous line “And I let you push me around till now.” On cue comes single “Gimme,” an absolute onslaught about fearless confidence in desire. Like the preceding song, it begins with a line altogether unintelligible, apart from the titular “Gimme,” — another instance of sounds preceding words in a visceral, spontaneous outpouring. The song features producer Hudson Mohawke, who channels his avant electronic and trap-informed instincts into a format that blends into the surrounding tracks while still projecting some of his signature sound. Over a spacious, angular, bass-heavy backdrop, Banks sounds sultry and devilish, seeming to take charge with a vengeance, as she sings, “At the rock bottom baby crawl, crawl / I let you lick it from the ground.” She builds up to “You can call me that bitch,” which might alternatively be interpreted as “You can call me that, bitch” (Note punctuation.) The decisive chorus finds her demanding, “Gimme, gimme, what I want” over post-dubstep, pulsating synths.

On “Contaminated,” Banks recedes from the commotio to more restrained musings, delivered in a coy bittersweet voice over sparse piano. She keeps the lyrics racy, with such snippets as “You memorized the lines of my thighs” and “You love me like you promised your wife,” until a gripping chorus, full of disinfected ‘80s anthemic verve, erupts and finds her changing tone. She strays into the more nasal voicings that she puts on occasionally for dramatic effect, adding an acidic punch to the conclusion “And we’re always gonna be / Contaminated.” Still far from attaining any closure, she returns to the taunting action of “Gimme” on “Stroke,” commanding, “Beg for it / Die for it,” as voices shift pitches gradually, reflecting fleeting changes of sentiment. The thunderclaps rejoin over a harsh, ominous bassline and more pulsing synths. Four tracks in, the album already sounds remarkably cohesive, with a palpable, dark and provocative aura. Banks mentions treading, soaking, floating, and drowning in an extended metaphor of water that she’ll return to later. The music gets downright discordant, and her sweet voicings over the strident sounds seem almost put on in jest, affirmed by a sprinkling of ‘80s accents. When she assets, “You been invited,” it comes across as a threat.  

Something of a deconstructed blues-derived dirge, heavy on ambience, and full of ghostly, hushed choirs and resounding thuds, “Godless” finds Banks’ phrases trailing off into processed warbles, again giving the sense of getting dragged away and consumed by one’s emotions. The passion and fervor reach a pinnacle in a striking chorus with such bold declarations as “When you’re gone I’m godless.” “Sawzall” brings a calm after the storm, with a lone, intricate, jazzy guitar backdrop, over which Banks dons her most cloying sonic persona in tandem with campy, fantastical sound effects. The motif of water resurfaces, as she muses, “Every single syllable I could repeat / Certified to scuba dive in my memory.” Isolated samples of fraught conversation spur on a metallic clank, and it all takes a swift left turn, with a trudging beat framing all the scattered nuance in a loose grid, as lines like “Caught you singing from the ceiling” play off the M.C. Escher-esque abstractions. By the end, Banks is in a conciliatory mode, conceding, “I understand / I gave you nothing.” 

It all spirals marvelously out of control on lead single “Look What You’re Doing to Me.” Banks darts through open space with melismatic contortions, until taking off into a crashing chorus that effectively captures the feeling of torturous love — chaotic, concerted, vulnerable, and triumphant all at once. The song is an exciting collaboration with Francis and the Lights, and features production from Bon Iver. Bandleader Francis Farewell Starlite chimes in occasionally, and his off-the-cuff interjections are central to producing the song’s effect, as if adding extra weight to select bits from a turbulent stream of consciousness. The maddening repetition of “Why you just looking me over? / Look what you’re doing to me!” convey the crazed desperation of love, and function very much as an apex of the album. A decidedly mellower highlight follows in “Hawaiian Mazes.” Befitting its title, the tune is airy and buoyant, yet oblique and labyrinthine, with a catchy chorus built from flowing sighs, piano trills and cartoonish pings. Seemingly having caved in from all the frenzy of the former track, Banks here resolves, “I gotta let you go.” It’s only moments, however, before a full 180, as her firmness gives way to pleas of “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy don’t go” on “Alaska.” The sincerity of the sentiment is questionable, as her effervescent pronouncements are worlds away from the vampy, deranged evocations elsewhere. It’s a sprightly, winsome number with tinny percussion and organic bass sounds that give a quirky retro-informed sound, in line with its retrospective lyrics. 

The teeter-tottering continues unabated on “Propaganda,” with Banks exclaiming, “It’s undecided, but I got to know.” Her angelic voice devolves into scratchy, strained, grating forms at points, but engaged in the catchiest chorus, buoyed by bright synth sounds and propulsive beats, with a singsong-ey tune that belies the weight and tension of the lyrics. By the end, it’s escalated to admissions of “Mama I need help… I can’t save myself.” This leads into the ominously titled “The Fall,” in which Banks ostensibly suffers a sensory overload, cramming syllables frenetically into lines, beforing lapsing into a brief lull. Then comes a grand, bombastic chorus full of bold distortion and spattering percussion. It’s all very panoramic and epic, and Banks’ partly spoken, screamed and sung bouts of passion make for some of the album’s most stirring moments. When she observes, “Girl you almost made it through the fall,” she could be speaking to herself over stepping into the role of an omniscient narrator, but at any rate, the feeling is incisive.

“Made of Water” opens with ambient nature sounds, and finds Banks on the mellower side again, in a fittingly aquatic wound, with bumbling sound candy, and sweeping synth swells. Like amorphous liquid, the song runs through a litany of ifs and maybes, such as “Maybe if you say it again” and “If you could rearrange your words,” culminating in the thought that “If we were made of water we could swim around it.” Finally, these contingencies yield to a final question in the closing number. Timeless, faded instrumentation adds an elusive sense of resolution, and a haze of backwards music, pieces clipped and frayed, coalesces into a soundscape fragmented but flowing. Banks continues to flesh out lists of maybes, in a final meditation over an interplay of strings and electronic flourishes. After all the flurry, there’s a shrug, a fluttering of eyelashes, and a half-whisper of hope, all effectively punctuated by the repeated titular entreaty, ““What About Love.”  

Banks’ music has always simultaneously reflected the pop zeitgeist and exuded personality with a certain dark edge. “III” takes this to a new level, with its abounding, haunting melodies, crazed paroxysms, and unprecedentedly dramatic performances and arrangements. Whatever revelations came about during the couple years between albums have ushered in an astounding surge of creative energy. The new songs dive headlong into the frenzied headspace of love and loss, and explore the peaks and troughs with a racy, adventurous vitality and fearlessness of spirit. Banks manages to articulate universally relatable, yet elusive emotions in ways that are at once strikingly original and immediately engaging. The heated flurry of passions that runs through the album showcases newfound wisdom alongside a vague, persisting humility that bares itself in the open-ended climax of amorous uncertainty. It’s altogether a riveting next step for Banks and a promising sign of what’s to come.

III” is available July 12 on Apple Music.