FKA Twigs, High Priestess of Pop Music’s Avant-Garde

(Photo by Matthew Stone)

Magdalene, the latest album from the English artist FKA Twigs, sounds unnatural as it seeps out of a simple set of speakers: It’s too weighty, too ornate for just a casual listen. That much is clear during the opener, “thousand eyes,” in which her piercing choral arrangements ring out beatifically amid crashes of what could be a golden opera gong. It’s easier to imagine songs like these unraveling in a lavish, ruby-encrusted theater somewhere, one fit for the excess, the nakedness, and the fury of Twigs’s high drama. 1
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Twigs’s real name is Tahliah Barnett, and she has made a career of contorting herself into different shapes. A professionally trained ballerina, she entered the music industry as a backup dancer for pop singers like Jessie J and Ed Sheeran. Quietly, she began testing her voice with producers in London and eventually teamed up with Young Turks, the imprint behind creative progressives like the electronic artist Jamie xx and the jazz futurist Kamasi Washington. Twigs fit perfectly into that roster by not quite fitting in. Her plainly titled projects EP1 and EP2, as well as her debut album, LP1, were full of strange, wispy electronic and R&B abstractions, powered by her breathy vocals. But it was the visuals that established her as a high priestess of the avant-garde. She dropped stunning videos like “Two Weeks”—in which she assumes the role of a giant gilded deity surrounded by a Hieronymus Bosch–style sea of tiny goddesses—and then she transformed four songs from her third EP, M3LL155X, into a short 2015 film that captured her baroque, haunting aesthetic. There were seemingly no bounds to her creativity, but fans would have to wait another four years for her to pour all of her imagination into a second album.2

Magdalene arrived in early November. It isn’t exactly an easy album to listen to. The orchestration is purposefully intense and discordant; the vocals fluctuate between celestial and unsettling. A lot of it is painful. FKA Twigs has folded trauma deep into the music, mourning a recent period of heartbreak amid a health scare that forced her to slow down after six fibroid tumors were removed from her uterus. For an artist as ambitious and athletic as Twigs is, physical inactivity was impossible. After an intense surgery, she interrupted her recovery period to dance in a 2018 Apple commercial directed by Spike Jonze. “When I was on set with Spike, the stitches in my bellybutton were splitting open,” she told the British magazine i-D. “I told him: ‘Just so you know, if I start bleeding through this white shirt…’”3

Twigs pushes her limits repeatedly on this record, grinding through agony while connecting with something raw and carnal rippling through her. She’s achingly vulnerable at times, then resilient and merciless as she finds healing in her serpentine melodies. In several songs, she evokes the biblical Mary Magdalene, who throughout history has been reduced to simple tropes of being either a sinner or a saint. Twigs refuses to have her identity flattened in any way; she has created a sonic universe that is purposefully complex, losing some straightforward accessibility and burning the easy bridges into pop and R&B stardom that she had constructed on past releases. But Magdalene is worth the sacrifice. Here we find Twigs’s most opulent offering and the project that most wrenchingly expresses the depths of her brazen artistry. 4

Twigs is present on each element of Magdalene. That’s likely because she steered the production more directly than ever before. She previously collaborated with people who represent the cutting edge of experimentalism, among them Arca (the beloved Venezuelan artist who has worked with Björk, Kelela, and Frank Ocean). Arca is a producer on Magdalene alongside Jack Antonoff and Skrillex, who tinkered on the song “holy terrain.” The Chilean electronic producer Nicolas Jaar appears on seven tracks. Twigs initially called on him to handle the bulk of the production. Then her genius took over, and soon she had exercised so much control that he began having qualms about taking credit for it. “He felt that his name on stuff wouldn’t highlight how much I’ve done, especially as a female producer,” Twigs told Pitchfork. “When he said that to me, I cried.”5

She is stranger and freer here, all while testing the intensity of her voice and soundscapes. Twigs has always leaned toward eerie, atmospheric textures, and she does so again on songs like “home with you,” which starts with spooky, warped vocals that clump together as if by static cling. Eventually, her clear soprano glides in and underscores the lines pregnant with emotion. “I didn’t know that you were lonely / If you’d have just told me, I’d be running down the hills to be with you,” she sings, conjuring Kate Bush, both in the sound and in the lyrics. So much of Magdalene is about contrasts: Twigs speeds up the beat for “fallen alien,” the most disorienting track on the album, which doubles as a warning. “When you fall asleep, I’ll kick you down,” she snarls. But then her wrath melts away on “mirrored heart,” a stark lament that exposes her sadness and loneliness as she observes the happy couples around her.6 Related Article

On “holy terrain,” she enlists the rapper Future to juxtapose female strength and male vulnerability. The song is the only one on the album with a featured artist, and in the i-D interview Twigs referred to it as “the most fun track” on Magdalene. Indeed, it’s the song that most resembles something that could garner big radio play, but its sheer weirdness says a lot about her true ambitions for mainstream attention. Instead of recruiting a splashy name, she has chosen a rapper who’s known for his specific brand of trap noir. The song features no catchy hook, no trend toward a recognizable style. Twigs keeps the accompanying video beguiling, slithering toward the camera wearing spooky red and blue contacts.7

In the end, she isn’t that interested in being palatable to the masses. Preserving her creative integrity might not be as challenging at a time when stars—Solange and Rosalía come to mind—have delivered commercially viable pop music that retains a deep sense of idiosyncrasy. Still, while someone like Rosalía has sauntered into genres like reggaeton and dembow to boost her profile, Twigs’s proposition is completely uncompromising. She stands as an unwavering auteur, and fame, popular metrics, and broad appeal aren’t a huge part of her equation. “If I’m unhappy, I’ll just disappear,” she once told The Guardian. “I will shave off my hair and live in the south of France, and I’ll be learning a new language where no one gives a shit about who I am.” 8

The irony is that although Twigs has rejected celebrity, she’s someone people want to watch. She landed on the cover of i-D before any of her music had come out, after photographer Matthew Stone spotted her at a club in London. But the private parts of her life have drawn attention, too; her relationships with famed actors have resulted in tabloid interest, as well as racist vitriol and Internet abuse. After one breakup, Twigs said, she isolated herself and began working on Magdalene. “I went to a vintage fair and found this one dress, it was a white medieval dress,” she told Double J. “I just lived in it…. I wasn’t talking to my friends or my family, really. I was just wandering around in these medieval dresses.” This image of Twigs encapsulates the beautiful eeriness and desolation of the record, as she floats through the music at her own pace.9

It’s often the imagery that brings her messages home. She has constantly emphasized how conceptual an artist she is through her physicality and her eye for visuals, which add unexpected layers to her work. One of the most poignant songs on Magdalene is “cellophane,” a tender piano ballad that refers to the unwanted attention she received during a high-profile relationship. The music compelled her to take up pole dancing. “To complete my vision for the ‘cellophane’ video I had to learn to pole-dance, I knew it from the moment I finished the song in the studio,” she explained on Twitter. In April she dropped a video directed by Andrew Thomas Huang in which she soars on a pole toward a sky that opens up before her. 10

Eventually, she falls. But in those first glorious moments, her performance is one of formidable strength, even as she sings fragilely, “And didn’t I do it for you? Why don’t I do it for you?” In a behind-the-scenes segment for the video, Twigs says she found the contrast between the visuals and the lyrics humorous. It’s an elaborate trick, set up to show that even when she sounds as though her heart has been pulverized, she knows she’s a force that can hardly be contained, something she demonstrates as she rips through the air. “To me, it’s sick, and it’s funny, and it feels powerful,” Twigs says. “‘Didn’t I do it for you? Am I not enough?’ Like, I’m more than enough. You can’t even handle it.”11

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