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FKA twigs Has Always Defied Genre. Pop Music Finally Caught Up

In our Weekly Review series, we dive into 'Magdalene', the long-awaited second album from pop's most innovative polymath.

by Emma Garland
08 November 2019, 9:15am

FKA twigs has always been an incredibly physical performer. Not just because she’s a professional dancer-turned artist who has spent the last few years mastering pole, tap and wushu for an ambitious 2019 tour combining all of the above and (somehow?) more, but because she wrestles with emotion in a very palpable way. It courses through twigs’ music like blood, twisting the production, inflating the lyrics and affecting her vocal delivery – which traverses a Kate Bush-like spectrum of ethereal whisper to guttural cry. Pleasure, pain, loneliness, anger, desire: whatever she feels, you feel.

Twigs has always embraced the dark and the euphoric, knowing one can’t exist without the other, but there’s something primal about her style that gives it a strange edge. As art, it demands your full attention or none at all. But, like sex or meditation, fully immersing yourself means relinquishing a sense of control. Like LP1 and M3LL155X, pressing play on MAGDALENE means giving yourself over and letting it fuck you up.

Produced mostly with Nicolas Jaar (plus a list of contributor credits including Jack Antonoff, Oneohtrix Point Never, Metro Boomin and Skrillex), MAGDALENE wrestles with twigs’ usual themes of vulnerability, strength and sexuality through a feminine lens. It’s more patient than LP1; nine diligent meditations that unravel gradually rather than gunning for immediate payoff. Taking influence from a wide range of sounds from industrial noise to opera, MAGDALENE is fantastically dramatic. It leans into vulnerability more than LP1, framing emotional pain as a birthplace for new strength rather than frailty. As a result the pace of the album, like growth itself, is slow and steady.

It opens with medieval choir singing a capella about the threat of change – an act of physical departure that would mark the end of a relationship and awaken “a thousand eyes”. From there, it’s a non-linear journey of heartbreak, moving through feelings of failure and neediness (“home with you”) to seething over all the ways in which someone has hurt you (“fallen alien”) to the inevitable sad wank (“daybed”). Eventually we come to lead single “cellophane”, whose sense of devastation is as epic as a Greek myth. twigs has previously described her process as bringing all her ideas to the table and slowly chipping away at them, and that’s certainly how this album feels. Intricate detail is cleaved from vast soundscapes, like sculptures carved out of a rock face.

With the exception of “holy terrain”, a whispery trap jam featuring Future, the album resists “bangers” altogether. That might be disappointing for those wanting another “Two Weeks” to seduce someone else’s husband to, but MAGDALENE was borne from a period of solitude in which twigs apparently took to “wearing long medieval dresses and wandering around by herself”, so we got an album of tearjerkers visually loaded with art history references.

For all it’s depth and complexity, though, MAGDALENE is ultimately a straightforward album about relationships; about the dynamics of dominance and submission that play out within them, and how they eventually fall apart. Sexuality has always been a consistent force within twigs’ music, and while it still runs through this album it feels a little bruised, asking you to consider her sensitivity as well as her strength. “Lower is my ceiling / Pressing are my feelings / Active are my fingers / Faux my cunnilingus” she sings on “daybed”, while on “holy terrain” she asks of a new flirtation: “Will you still be there for me once I’m yours to obtain? Once my fruits are for taking and you flow through my veins?”

Feminine energy is typically characterised as either wicked or weak, but twigs fucks with those binaries and alters their definitions. At one end of the spectrum is “Two Weeks”, in which the narrator tempts a man away from a sexless relationship, tapping into such a specific undercurrent of darkness it became the soundtrack to a particularly harrowing scene in Mr Robot where two characters begin kissing before one strangles the other to death. At the other end is “cellophane”, in which the helplessness of heartbreak is seized upon with such determination it becomes a form of domination in itself (as writer Owen Myers put it, for Pitchfork, it’s like “topping from the bottom”).

While you’d struggle to label FKA twigs as mainstream, the pop landscape she’s releasing music into now is a lot different to 2015. Things have taken an experimental turn both in sound and subject matter since then, and now we live in a ‘future pop’ world where Charli XCX rules supreme. FKA was ahead of this curve, pushing back against critics' urges to categorise her as R&B at the time, since she's a mixed-ethnicity British woman. At last, the rest of music has caught up. And while sex may still not be a defining feature of British pop, many of the most acclaimed albums of the last few years – from Frank Ocean, SZA, Billie Eilish, Sophie, King Princess, Brockhampton, Tyler, the Creator – have explored sexual identity beyond the categories of lust or prowess through innovative sounds. Even factory pop prince Harry Styles’ latest single “Lights Up” takes a left turn into more conceptual territory, with an artfully sensual video.

With its New Testament allegories and baroque influences, MAGDALENE is as much a product of its time as LP1 – a Mercury Prize-nominated work of steamy electronica released into a blandscape of Sam Smiths, Adeles and Jess Glynnes – but FKA twigs has never played by the rules. We’re living through an epidemic of pop stars being all talk and no trousers, churning out female empowerment quotes like sentient tote bags, but FKA twigs is nothing but trousers. She might not give much away in interviews, but you don’t need feminist soundbites from someone who is expressing multitudes through their work. You don’t need someone who has spent the last four years physically transforming in public to tell you women can be anything.

Lofty in ambition and simple in message, MAGDALENE transforms the emotional chaos of heartache into an act of emancipation. You have to smash a vase into tiny pieces before you can turn it into something else.

You can find 'MAGDALENE' in all the usual places online (and on physical release) here.

@emmaggarland

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FKA Twigs
album review
Weekly Review