Review: FKA twigs- MAGDALENE (2019)

by Ethan Cyrus Hemmati

It’s not hard to see why FKA twigs may get compared to Kate Bush. In many ways, it’s a comforting notion that Bush’s nomadic, lodestar energy remains within the voices of today’s soundscape.

Her successors may fall short though – no musician has quite managed to bring avant-garde freak into the mainstream as successfully as Bush – the differences and distinctiveness are often concessions to modernity and convention. No such hooks have been heard previously within the discography of twigs. Maybe one or two here from her debut EP1 (2014), or more notably in ‘Two Weeks’, her infamously erotic and most recognisable track from that album.

FKA Twigs; Image by Bobo Boom via Creative Commons

Aside from last year’s collaboration with A$AP Rocky, ‘Fukk Sleep’ – and another with Future on this album – she’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as artists of that calibre.

And now, four years after her EP release M3LL155X (2015) – and five since the release of EP1 – here we are, staring down the barrel of MAGDALENE.

Consequently, twigs now joins the ranks of fellow similar absentee musicians peer Frank Ocean – fiercely private, possessive of mystique, and deeply revered. It’s all too easy to view her as some social pariah, but twigs is no recluse. Active on Instagram, as well as being the creative director for a Nike womenswear campaign and a dancer for an Apple advert, her career concedes to exposure.

Her recent personal battles though – a development of fibroid tumours and subsequent surgery, as well as a highly documented public relationship with actor Robert Pattinson – seem to be simultaneously present and absent here in MAGDALENE. Rather, she appears in some Nietzschean way to have absorbed and controlled the hardship that did not kill her.

Rather, she appears in some Nietzschean way to have absorbed and controlled the hardship that did not kill her.

As it stands MAGDALENE is another complex investigation of female sexuality and subordinacy to men but rooted in something a bit more bitter to the taste, something quite rural and elemental, and informed by images of a biblical and divine sort. If it’s not exactly a stripped back endeavour, it certainly feels older and more rugged than twigs’ last two releases.

At times, it feels like a retelling of an old fable about femininity, ruined and shamed and warped by time; or, possibly, the point is that this is the definitive story of femininity.

The Magdalene motif – a woman shunned, expelled from her surroundings – looms large in every track, not least in ‘mary magdelene’, an intimate character study and the album’s strongest vignette. In it, twigs’ cut-glass delivery pays solemn respect to “A woman’s work” – a passing tribute to Bush’s ‘This Woman’s Work’. Elsewhere, on the mystical ‘holy terrain’, twigs is on a search for a man “who can follow his heart”; future appears here also, with atypical talk of thunder, gardens, and snakes.

Twigs’ vocal range, flatly incredible, hiccups “down the hills” on ‘home with you’ and refracts into a million pieces on the opener ‘thousand eyes’. On the galloping ‘fallen alien’, her dialect slides and stutters in parallel with her rising fury; she appears, at various moments, to be channeling several voices at once.

Whilst one is reluctant to read a musician’s narrative into their lyrics, it’s evident that there are two Magdalenes that twigs has in mind.

The first is Christ’s disciple, resurrected here as a “creature of desire” (a promiscuous interpretation that Garth Davis’ 2018 biopic starring Rooney Mara incidentally tried very hard to pivot away from). These woman’s hands “so dark and provocative” are used here not for sex but for male support, and, crucially, female subservience.

The second Magdalene concerns twigs’ mysterious three-long relationship with a high-class celebrity, a stint which saw her subjected to the racist attitudes of Twilight fans and subsequently shunned. Usually a prominent theme of twigs’ lyricism, sex is interestingly deferred in this album, as much directed offstage as it is something that occurred long ago and now ruminated over.

Usually a prominent theme of twigs’ lyricism, sex is interestingly deferred in this album

In its weaker moments the music of MAGDALENE is always on hand to distract the album closer – as reliably agile and slinky as twigs’ newfound pole dancing technique showcased in her music video for ‘cellophane’.

MAGDALENE’s final image, a woman scorned and derided, is salient for its magical partnership: twigs’ voice, cool and cutting, slicing through the air, as a male voice quietly keeps the beat behind her. It’s enough to bring a rush of blood to the head.

Image: fka twigs concert live in berlin by Andreas Meixensperger via Creative Commons

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