FKA twigs: MAGDALENE

FKA twigs: MAGDALENE

With limitlessly innovative songwriting and production, the cinema of twigs’ music has never been more affecting. MAGDALENE is not just on the vanguard of pop, it’s in a breathtaking class of its own. 

From her first video, 2012’s mesmerizing “Hide,” the singular focus of her vision was apparent, a holistic project that rendered FKA twigs’ operatic approach to club beats inextricable from her astounding art direction. In the seven years since, she has made her art into a kind of theatrical multimedia experience, crafting elaborate shows and videos that intertwine and smudge the lines of classicism and the avant-garde. She is astonishing, ambitious, and seemingly good at everything, singing over her own ticker-tape beats, self-directing wildly conceptual videos, and ravenously hoovering up dance disciplines (apparently up to and including Chinese sword fighting) until she masters them.

Yet in spite of twigs’ distinctive soprano (spectral and often papery) and her experimental production (stunning and often bellicose), her music has resonated best as a part of a whole, a piece that propels her full-blown artistry but does not totally comprise it. Chalk this up to twigs’ innovation in the Eyeballs Epoch, but even 2015’s incredible M3LL155X EP—a brooding and serrated read on genres like industrial, ballroom house, and triple-time rap—centered adventurousness over melody. It let the fullness of her art bring the beats along with it—weird bangers meant to challenge patrons of the most interesting nightclubs—but was probably best experienced while watching French artist and polymath Michèle Lamy rendered as a deep-sea anglerfish. The gesamtkunstwerk of twigs sometimes overshadowed the music itself, in part because so much of twigs’ presence is her world-class athleticism as a dancer. She imbues voguing and lyrical ballet with such grace and sensuality that the emotion of her music emanates directly from her body.

MAGDALENE, then, is a fucking revelation. FKA twigs’ first album in four years, and her best work by far, is as introspective as anything she’s written, but more obviously centers her voice as a conduit for plain emotion. Written during a publicly scrutinized relationship with a famously reluctant vampire, as well as a more private recovery from the removal of fibroids from her uterus, she has said she found solace and inspiration in the story of Mary Magdalene, the New Testament’s most reviled and misunderstood character, whose complexities were rewritten by centuries of chauvinist churchmen into a fallen-woman side note in Jesus’ story. By locating herself in Magdalene’s lineage, twigs, a Catholic school alumnus, explores the ways deeply conservative expectations trammel women; in doing so, she locates a version of herself within these ancient and oppressive archetypes, upending and transcending them through the power of her songwriting and the sheer magnetic pull of her presence.

“thousand eyes” opens MAGDALENE with twigs singing in the austere polyphony of Medieval church music, a meditation on the moment before a permanent departure (“If I walk out the door it starts our last goodbye”) that, with repetition, reveals itself as a hymn. It’s a prologue for an album whose songs are produced like narratives, with a beginning, climax, and denouement. She grapples with survival—psychic and physical survival—the way a woman who lives to move might respond to being laid out by tumors on an organ that facilitates birth. She is furious in parts, attacking tracks like the sweet “home with you” and snarling standout “fallen alien” with virility and self-preservation. Even if shit went south, she refuses to saddle herself with the burden: “I’m a fallen alien, I never thought that you would be the one to tie me down,” she seethes. “But you did in this age of Satan/I’m searching for a light to take me home and guide me out.”

MAGDALENE is visceral and direct, but despite featuring a trunk-thumping Future collaboration (“holy terrain”), this is not a play to make pop music in the charts-humping sense. It’s a document of twigs’ marked achievements in songwriting and musicality as she elucidates her melodies without sacrificing her viewpoint. “sad day,” one of MAGDALENE’s most astonishing tracks, finds twigs properly genuflecting at the altar of Kate Bush, clearly having learned from her ability to translate inner sanctum into cinematic, Shelleyan alt-pop. The production by twigs, Nicolas Jaar, Skrillex, and benny blanco is utterly sublime: Skittering toms build onto an oscillating space-synth, the beats a proscenium for twigs’ voice and, especially, her lover’s desperation. Even if “sad day” doesn’t tell an explicit narrative in its lyrics, its production and twigs’ delivery tell an emotional one, that of the last desperate grasps at love in a power imbalance; we’re at the center where the story turns, teetering towards its inevitable end.

That the album stands alone is not to say the totality of her vision is truncated; twigs has already released three videos to accompany its nine songs. The first, “cellophane,” set the tone for the project, showcasing her pole-dancing skills to a dissonantly sorrowful ballad. (That she apparently finds it funny is a testament to her character—serious artists who can’t laugh at themselves are the worst.) The armchair interpretation of “cellophane” is as a meditation on the virulent racism that disgusting British tabloids and the worst of Twilight stans lobbed at twigs during her relationship with Robert Pattinson, but it’s equally a mournful reflection on the insecurities that dog any inequitable relationship. The imagery twigs has associated with “cellophane”—pole dancing, a feat of physical strength set perpendicular to the emotional strength she sings about lacking—calls up the idea of performing for others’ pleasure. It’s a sad solo dance by someone both fully present in herself and aware that she’s toeing the line between agency and subjugation. As the final track on this deeply thought, deeply felt album, “cellophane” acts as a rejoinder to “thousand eyes”—how sickening it must be, a woman artist constantly watched by bigoted tabloids interested in tearing you down from the man you love, how they did Mary M. and Jesus—and underscores the sorrow woven through MAGDALENE. The fact that sorrow spurred a musical growth this formidable, though, is evidence enough that twigs will always find her way back home.


Buy: Rough Trade

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