Review Summary: her masterpiece
An oft-overlooked aspect of music is which artists truly have a voice
in the direction and shaping of their genre. Every musical field is an elusive and constantly shifting set of paradigms, but at all times someone seems to serve as the figurehead for the movement. Sometimes that spotlight only lasts for an album or two before someone more innovative knocks them off of their figurative pedestal; it’s perpetually in flux. The roundabout point here is that whatever
you consider FKA Twigs to be – R&B, electronic, trip-hop, “art pop” – Tahliah Barnett is a key influencer in what her peers do. LP1
is mostly to thank for her seizure of that platform, which took the slowly evolving sounds of her first two EPs and curated them to near-perfection. At its best, it could be considered an R&B landscape-altering piece – an album that would have a large impact on other artists within the genre for the remaining half of the decade. Interestingly, for as successful as LP1
was, the 2015 EP M3LL155X
is what saw her achieve her artistic zenith and assume the form that we now witness with Magdalene
– she’s darker than ever and the additional presence of glitchy, codified production adds a chaotic sense of contrast to her gorgeously smooth vocals. If LP1
was her breakthrough and M3LL155X
was a necessary bridge for her to pinpoint her ideal formula, then Magdalene
is FKA Twigs delivering a fusion of her best ideas and production qualities to date – her masterpiece.
At just nine songs, Magdalene
feels like only the best cuts were utilized. ‘thousand eyes’ is a bold choice as the opener – it’s the record’s second longest track and it relies primarily upon a series of chanted mantras. The backdrop is mechanical, cold, and bare; a canvas comprised of little more than the occasional clang or rickety echo. It’s challenging – perhaps even alienating – but that’s what fans of FKA Twigs’ art come to the table for. Whereas ‘thousand eyes’ sounds more like a jarring overture than an actual song, ‘home with you’ swoops in with all of the warmth and vulnerability that was missing from its predecessor. The track makes several observations about relationships, ranging from toxic codependency (“The more you burn away, the more the people earn from you / The more you pull away, the more that they depend on you”) to Barnett’s interesting choice to compare her own willingness to die for her loved ones to that of Mary Magdalene’s commitment to Jesus Christ. Sonically, ‘home with you’ is a tightly wound ball of rope slowly unraveling; it begins with palpable tension as the chant-like delivery from ‘thousand eyes’ carries over – however, as it progresses, Tahliah’s words seem to flow more effortlessly until they’re eventually spilling all over the page. By the end of the track, her lyrics and melodies take off with a flourish of strings – a moment that qualifies as a twist, but also one not entirely unforeseen given the track’s gradual deconstruction from rigidly robotic to freely ascending. The thawing process is complete by the time we reach ‘sad day’, which features the lushest melody out of Magdalene
’s crop. Underscored by moody IDM beats, FKA Twigs’ vocals sound richer than ever, making for an accessible cut that is sure to double as a fan favorite/album highlight.
If there’s a creative decision on Magdalene
that’s likely to draw any ire, it’s the inclusion of famous hip-hop artist Future on ‘holy terrain’ – a track whose beat opens itself up to the possibility of a rap verse, but ends up sounding like a fairly generic mainstream radio song when all is said and done. Future isn’t directly to blame for this, as the track is inherently formulaic, and there’s no guarantee that a different artist in the feature slot would have saved it. It’s not a poor effort outright, but it fails to live up to the artistic standards that the rest of Magdalene
upholds. Fortunately, things immediately pick back up with the title track – a tale of subtle desire and bold confidence where Barnett addresses women who’ve been diminished and/or written out of history merely due to their sex: “A woman's war, unoccupied history.” She again likens herself to the Biblical figure Mary Magdalene – one of Jesus’ primary disciples who was dismissed throughout history as a prostitute rather than a person of crucial religious/historical importance (unlike her male counterparts who were not subject to such discriminatory bias). On ‘mary magdalene’, FKA Twigs writes, “A woman's touch, a sacred geometry / I know where you start, where you end / How to please, how to curse”, and it feels empowering – a more poetic “women rule the world” sentiment. The relatively bare canvas lends an air of authority to her vocals, almost as if she’s alone in a cathedral, making for an elegiac pop ballad that positions itself both figuratively and literally as the record’s centerpiece. It’s also the album’s namesake, and when pairing Magdalene
’s jarring artwork with the accompanying lyrics about women’s historically embattled rights, each scar upon her face seems like less of a blemish and more like a badge worn honorably.
is backloaded with some of FKA Twigs strongest individual tracks to date. ‘fallen alien’ is a career highlight and immediate song of the year contender, possessing one of the most rhythmically complex and aesthetically rich atmospheres that she’s ever crafted. The track commences with gentle piano notes and electronic effects that are jolted to the forefront with the synth-equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. FKA Twigs’ opening verses are then interrupted by extremely high-pitched, digitally-altered chants of “I feel the lightning blast”, and it’s clear that this is going to be the most epic bid on all of Magdalene
. Thematically, the song again deals with relationships gone awry – in this case, that feeling of claustrophobia when you sense that someone is restricting your potential: “I never thought that you would be the one to tie me down…but you did.” FKA Twigs went on record confirming as much, stating, “For me, it’s that line, When the lights are on, I know you/When you fall asleep, I’ll kick you down/By the way you fell, I know you/Now you’re on your knees
. You’re just so sick of somebody’s bull***, you’re just taking it all day, and then you’re in bed next to them, and you’re just like, ‘I can’t take this anymore’.” Of course, as per Twigs’ reputation, the song’s motives aren’t overly transparent – so while such meaning can be derived through interpretation, ‘fallen alien’ is, at least from a technical/musical standpoint, an absolute blast.
The closing trio of songs are all relatively low-key compared to the preceding six, especially when pitted against the borderline maniacal ‘fallen alien’, but they offer some of the most honest glimpses into FKA Twigs’ personal life. ‘mirrored heart’ is a breathtaking lo-fi piece that likens significant others to reflections of ourselves, and – driven by Tahlia’s beautiful but equally pained wails – mourns the agony of severing such a reflection: “But I'm never gonna give up / Though I’m probably gonna think about you all the time / And for the lovers who found a mirrored heart / They just remind me I'm without you.” ‘daybed’ deals with depression – with FKA Twigs comparing the flies on her dirty dishes to welcome guests/companions – atop a mesmerizing bed of electronics that favors passive dissonance over any sort of substantial display. The curtain call, ‘cellophane’, is in essence a piano ballad draped over a minimal beat, but Barnett’s voice carries it everywhere it needs to go. Whether it’s the way she so tenderly sings, “They wanna see us alone, they wanna see us apart” or how she kicks the register (and emotion) up several notches when she despondently cries, “And I just want to feel you're there”, ‘cellophane’ is a song that starts and ends with Barnett and her impressive vocal spectrum. The distorted notes that float aimlessly between her words submerge her voice in a blurry, dream-like atmosphere, but the rest is simply a display of inimitable vocal prowess. As such, ‘cellophane’ feels like the perfect closer – it’s raw, candid, and musically bare…a window to her soul.
Stepping back again to put Magdalene
in context, it’s clear that FKA Twigs has created her best album so far. It combines the addicting complexity of M3LL155X
’s production aesthetics with the more elaborate and thoughtful songwriting of LP1
. The only question that remains is whether or not Magdalene
further augments FKA Twigs as one of – if not the
– face of experimental R&B/electronic art-pop. In merging all of her best traits, she’s surely crafted a piece to be reckoned with, but for those same reasons it’s less of a boundary pusher than M3LL155X
were before it. When you exist on the cutting edge of musical experimentation, if you’re not inventing something new then you are falling into a pattern. It’s a perfectly acceptable path, and Twigs has earned this niche, but it will be interesting to see where she goes from here now that she’s crafted her magnum opus. Whether she decides to scale a new mountain or plants her flag into this one will dictate whether or not someone else supplants her as the next visionary in the genre. Regardless of what the future holds, though, Magdalene
sees FKA Twigs reach a wholly satisfying pinnacle that is unlikely to be rivaled by any of her peers in 2019.