Art Pop / Young Turks / November 8, 2019 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
For someone like me, who came to cultural consciousness in the early 2000s in large part thanks to artists who managed to synthesise widespread popularity with experimental mindsets – from Radiohead and Massive Attack to Aphex Twin and Nine Inch Nails – the music of FKA twigs has been crucial to me as a reminder that interesting things can still happen in popular culture today. Twigs first came to prominence in 2012, with her self-released EP1, and has since then also put out EP2 (2013), her debut-album LP1 (2014), the EP M3L155X (2015) and now her second album MAGDALENE (all on the Young Turks-label). Among the 90s popular modernist artists that I listened to, it is those associated with trip-hop that I think are her most central predecessors (e.g. Björk and Tricky/Martina Topley-Bird) both in sound and in their subversive identity experimentations and approaches to the pop-star appearance – which has retained the visual emphasis on the artist that is characteristic of popular culture, but only insofar as he or she has become a medium for channelling an alien outside that overturns orthodox human appearance (in twigs’ case particularly through collaborations with visual artists such as Jesse Kanda and Matthew Stone).
Indeed, speaking of her outsider childhood – as the only mixed-race girl in a wholly white Catholic school – she has remarked that her art helped her come to terms with what of her was perceived as alien and deviant, and allowed her to expand on it creatively rather than suppress it. This is surely one of the most compelling aspects about the artist twigs – that is, her transformation of identity that revolves around twisting and morphing herself into novel forms by embracing the alien sides of herself – which connects her work to some of the best post-war popular modernist musicians, such as Grace Jones and David Bowie, as well as the aforementioned Björk and Tricky, for whom channelling the alien indeed has been one of their artistic cornerstones. And like these artists, twigs has done a compelling job with fully utilising the pop music battery of resources beyond the music – including dance, fashion, album art and music videos (many directed by herself) – to build her singular artistic persona.
I first listened to EP1 and EP2 in 2015, and was instantly hooked by her blend of beautiful conventional melodies and song structures with experimental electronic arrangements (co-produced with the likes of Arca) – which consist not just of trip-hop, but also of R&B, industrial and choral elements, all stitched together by her silky-smooth voice with and without synthetic augmentation within an overall pop-song format. The same basic structure is present on MAGDALENE – although with two crucial modifications. Firstly, there is quite a lot of acoustic instrumentation (piano in particular) that stands in somewhat of a contrast to her previous, mostly electronic compositions. Secondly, there is considerably more vocal diversity as well (more range combined with synthetic augmentation) – which overall has resulted in an album that, indeed, is more sonically diverse compared to her previous ones. I was, however, initially a bit sceptical of the utilisation of acoustic instruments – simply because her previous electronic compositions are really great – but was proven wrong given the fact that it explicates on the one hand her great ability to seamlessly move from the soft and fragile to the harsh and noisy, and on the other hand a pop music sensibility that is synthetic and navigational as opposed to referential and pastiche. For – again, similarly to Björk’s music – MAGDALENE is an album that utilises a sonic plethora of soft to harsh sounds from several musical genres that we already are quite familiar with – yet, rather than this simply being a case of postmodern collage, it is in their mutual amplification that it all comes together. Indeed, great pop music does not just have a long history of subversive identity experimentation, but also of de- and reterritorialising modernist sonic forms within the pop song-format, and it is thus also in this sense that twigs’ music may be positioned within this lineage.
Hence, despite being just below forty minutes long, there is a lot to process on MAGDALENE – from mellow pianos to thundering beats (often within the same track), as well as some softer ballads and a great, hip-hop style Future-collaboration (‘holy terrain’). The introduction of acoustic instruments also somewhat emphasises the human thread that runs through the album and twigs’ work in general – for even though I have emphasised the inhuman elements of twigs’ artistry in this review (which, unsurprisingly, are what interests me the most), it would be a misrepresentation of her work to say that it is only about that. On the contrary, there is also a distinctively human side to it – in this case, articulated in particular through lyrics about breakups and womanhood – and it is thus really a case of a dialectic between human and inhuman that also is amplified by the use of both acoustic and synthetic instrumentation (again, including vocal work as well) that fuels the LP, and that is particularly powerful on tracks like ‘sad day’ and ‘fallen alien’. The former consists of a beautiful mellow blend of electronics and twigs’ voice – in the style that we have come to know from her earlier work – whereas the latter is a more upbeat fusion of piano, warped background voices, clubby beats and the probably most cocky vocal delivery by twigs so far (certainly sonic terrain that it would be interesting the see her explore further in the future).
If I have one reservation about the album, it is that its final third is a bit weaker compared to the previous ones – as it consists of three ballads that are a bit more sonically straightforward than the earlier tracks – but it is a minor side-note to an amazing album by one of pop music’s greatest artists today, who certainly lived up to the high expectations with MAGDALENE.