- The English artist emerges from life-changing illness and heartbreak with a renewed creative vision.
- Recently, to promote her new album, MAGDALENE, on live TV, FKA twigs stripped off a medieval gown and pole danced on a grand piano. This is a typical creative vision brought to life by the English singer, dancer, director and performer, born Tahliah Barnett. Since splashing onto the art-pop scene in 2012, she's plumbed the depths of her sexuality for the sake of creativity, making experimental electronic music that, at times, seems closer to fine art. In music videos, which employ several of twigs' talents at once, she's depicted shibari, turned herself into a blow-up doll and looked doe-eyed as a man shoved his fingers down her throat—all the while exhibiting unconventional taste and style.
While it projects a kind of fearlessness on the surface, twigs' work is vulnerable at its core. In her lyrics, delivered in a shy and breathy falsetto, lust and fear of rejection are two sides of the same coin. ("When I trust you we can do it with the lights on," the artist famously sang on 2014's LP1.) This, despite twigs' Björk-style ambitions, is perhaps what keeps her music accessible to a wider pop audience. She may be a symbol of feminine beauty and power, but she is also the rejected, everyday woman. One who is taught to accept but not ask, give but not burden. One who questions her worth. One who suffers for love.
Written after a very public celebrity breakup, MAGDALENE, twigs' second album, intimately examines romantic relationships with this woman's role in mind. ("Why won't you do it for me? / When all I do is for you?" she questions on "Cellophane," referring to her expected role as caretaker.) The inspiration comes from Mary Magdalene, a healer and companion of Jesus who has been controversially depicted as a prostitute. Though twigs' allusion is surface-level, aesthetically it gives her an ornate jumping-off point. From the pious imagery in MAGDALENE's music videos, to the baroque costumes, the project has evoked the mysticism of religion and history, months before the album dropped. So it's pleasing to find out, after this usual period of twigs-related hype, that the music not only lives up to this projected fantasy but feels like the most sacred part of it.
MAGDALENE presents a simpler yet more refined version of twigs' sound, where choir and classical music become enmeshed with futuristic electronic production. The atmospheres are candlelit, the sense of space as wide open as cathedral halls—a solemn place where twigs' singing, run through strange and chilling effects, is put in focus more than ever before. Around her, there are ethereal intros made from piano, cello and flute ("mary magdalene"), as well as extraterrestrial drums and warped electronic breakdowns ("sad day"). Almost every track inventively unites this sense of new and old, influenced by co-writers such as Nicolas Jaar, Arca and Skrillex. More impressive, though, is how voice and production work together to heighten the sense of heartbreak. On "fallen alien," the drum track gives twigs' enraged verses more heat, but then breaks away for her grieving, piano-led chorus. On "day bed," co-produced with Daniel Lopatin, twigs' tale of depression becomes ever more tender, mirrored by how the production crescendos from shadow to luminous peak.
This more mature approach to storytelling is what makes MAGDALENE a raw and outstanding album about love. The lyrics have more depth than LP1, bearing a universality that perhaps one can only write after an especially honest heartbreak. Even if your ex-lover isn't a movie star, the feelings of emotional betrayal on "mirrored heart" ring true: "Did you want me all? / No, not for life / Did you truly see me? / No, not this time / Were you ever sure? / No, no, no, not with me." On "home with you," twigs regrets their poor communication with a poetic vocal performance: "I didn't know that you were lonely / If you had just told me / I'd be running down / The hills to be with you." More importantly, these brow-furrowing hooks and choruses are—somewhat unusually for twigs—tempting to sing along to. (Though you might nobly butcher it; only the best singers will be able to keep up with her tidy falsetto, as it soars bleary-eyed through the sky.)
MAGDALENE has been four years in the making, a time in which twigs broke down and rebuilt herself. Out of the pain and despair came a new sense of self-worth—"A woman's work / A woman's prerogative / A woman's time to embrace / She must put herself first," she sings on the moving ballad "mary magdalene." And yet, while MAGDALENE contains some of the most poignant break-up lyrics I've ever had the pleasure of crying to, when it comes to a woman's self-worth, I find even more inspiration in twigs' actions. She executive produced the album, directed most of its videos, learned to pole dance for it, learned to wushu for it (a type of Chinese sword fighting) and turned it into her biggest stage show to date. Speaking to the Guardian ahead of MAGDALENE's release, twigs reflected, "I've never felt more beautiful because I've never been more skilled." In every perfect detail, it shows.
01. thousand eyes
02. home with you
03. sad day
04. holy terrain feat. Future
05. mary magdalene
06. fallen alien
07. mirrored heart