Review: FKA twigs’ 'Magdalene' develops her unique sound

by Jack Hargrove | 11/15/19 2:09am

There is no one in the world who sounds like FKA twigs. Her music contains a multitude of recognizable influences, sure, but the way in which she seamlessly weaves together musical ideas from a broad range of genres and styles into her own music is unique to her and her alone in the modern landscape of popular music. 

Born Tahliah Barnett, she got her start in the music industry in the early 2010s as a backup dancer, producing music demos on her own. After a couple of short EPs, she released her debut album, “LP1,” in 2014. The consensus was that it was alternative R&B; however, this doesn’t even begin to describe the sound of her music. The songs on that album had elements of operatic singing, classical instrumental flourishes, hip-hop beats, industrial synthesizers and even traditional choral music. Her influences are clear and varied, from Billie Holiday to Siouxsie and the Banshees to Kate Bush. 

As a result, the only description of her music that can be consistently used is avant-garde — every song is experimental and pushes music forward. The album “Magdalene” is her first project since 2015’s “M3LL155X” (pronounced “Melissa”), and it had a lot to live up to. In “Magdalene,” twigs not only manages to exceed expectations, but also continues to rise above her influences to further her unique sound.

The album opens with “thousand eyes,” an eerie hymn sung over a slowly building beat. Sounding like a choir all on her own, twigs repeats, “If I walk out the door, it starts our last goodbye/If you don’t pull me back, it wakes a thousand eyes.” Twigs wastes no time in showcasing her vocal ability, and her soprano wouldn’t sound out of place in a Medieval church choir. The beat starts quietly, but it grows louder and harsher into a climax, as twigs sings “It’s gonna be cold with all those eyes.” Finally, the tension releases and the beat drops away, leaving only chattering voices over a piano until the song fades away. 

Musically, this track is a stunning introduction into the world of “Magdalene,” and lyrically, it introduces the central narrative in the album. After she was in a public relationship with actor Robert Pattinson and went through a break up in 2017, most of the songs on the album reflect her feelings in the wake of this split. As the title implies, twigs detests the “thousand eyes” of the media watching and commenting on their break-up.

The next track, “home with you,” simultaneously marks a departure from her usual sound while still sounding distinctly like herself. In the verses, twigs is almost rapping, with a gritty voice that sounds increasingly frustrated and angry as the verse goes on. The hip-hop verses are juxtaposed with the chorus, in which twigs brightly sings, “I didn’t know that you were lonely/If you’d have just told me, I’d be home with you” over soft piano. The lyrics here seem to be a portrait of neediness in a failing relationship.

The song “sad day” continues this theme of desperation and lovelessness in a relationship, as twigs implores her lover to “make a wish on [her] love” in order to rejuvenate their feelings. Sonically, this song is one of the most interesting out of the tracks on the album. The chaotic drum beat and harsh synthesizers are reminiscent of the stylings of PC Music artists like A. G. Cook. 

Another highlight in the track listing is “daybed,” the penultimate song on the album. Eerie synthesizers open the song, and the instrumental remains slow and relaxed throughout. The best part of this track, however, are its lyrics. Twigs creates a devastating scene of crushing depression, in which she is unable to make herself get out of bed, singing, “Careful are my footsteps/Possessive is my daybed.” She describes the dishes stacking up in her sink, the fruit flies they attract and many other symptoms of her depression-induced lack of motivation.

While all of the songs above are incredible in their own right, the heart of this album comes in three tracks: “mary magdalene,” “fallen alien” and “mirrored heart” — tracks five, six and seven, respectively. This three-track run is captivating and beautiful from start to finish and may well be the best string of three songs on any album this year. 

The first of these tracks, “mary magdalene,” gives the album its name, and its lyrics explore the biblical story of Mary Magdalene as a theme. Despite Mary Magdalene being quite possibly the most devoted follower of Jesus, a misreading of the Bible over a thousand years ago has created the popular misconception that she was a reformed prostitute. As a result, her story has been twisted, and instead of being remembered and revered for her devotion, most people think of her first as a previously sinful woman. 

In this song, twigs relates herself to the true reading of Mary Magdalene, a woman that Jesus needed and depended on, stating “Yes, I heard you needed me/Yes, I’m here to open you.” Channeling her inner Kate Bush, twigs sings, “I can lift you higher/I do it like Mary Magdalene/I’m what you desire/Come just a little bit closer till we collide,” asserting herself as an empowered equal to her partner, just as she believes Mary Magdalene is an equal counterpart to Jesus. The last minute of the track features an explosive synthesizer outro, one of the most exciting parts of the album musically.

The next track, “fallen alien,” is far and away the best song on the album and probably the best song twigs has ever released. It begins with a foreboding piano melody over metallic synthesizers. When twigs’ vocals come in, the anger in her voice is immediately apparent, and it only grows as the song continues. Finally, she erupts into the chorus, singing “I’m a fallen alien/I never thought that you would be the one to tie me down/But you did.” The song chronicles her exasperation with her lover, growling, “When the lights are on I know you/See you’re grey from all the lies you tell/Now you hold me close, so tender/When you fall asleep I’ll kick you down.” What makes this song so great is that it is undeniably the most human that twigs has ever sounded. Every word she sings is dripping with anger, and it’s one of the few songs where her British accent is readily apparent. The track is exhilarating from start to finish and serves as the emotional centerpiece of this album.

The following track, “mirrored heart” begins lethargicly, with hazy guitar work and quiet synthesizers. The music builds through the first verse, until it reaches the chorus, when it suddenly fades. In the chorus, twigs comes to the most important realization on the album. She sings, “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.” Twigs desires a lover who is a reflection of herself and her heart, and she comes to the conclusion that her lover does not fulfill that role.

The album ends with “cellophane,” the lead single to the album and the first single that twigs had released in three years. The song is brilliant on its own and it only gets better in the context of the album. Sonically, the background instrumentation is very sparse, with a repeated piano line. Every line that twigs sings contains a crescendo in the chorus, as twigs laments the public nature of her relationship. Twigs sings, “And I just want to feel you’re there/And I don’t want to have to share our love/I try, but I get overwhelmed/All wrapped in cellophane, the feelings that we had,” comparing their relationship to transparent plastic wrapping that everyone can see through. This provides a wonderful bookend with the first track, “thousand eyes,” as both focus on twigs’ dissatisfaction with her private matters being viewed by the world. The album ends on the line “They’re waiting/And hoping/I’m not enough,” a rather depressing ending, but one that encapsulates the themes of this entire project.

As described previously, eight out of the nine songs on this album are fantastic. However, there is one black mark that hangs over the entire album: track four, “holy terrain,” featuring Future. This song is among the worst that twigs has ever released. The song features a very generic sounding trap beat in the background, and it is far less interesting than any other on the album. In addition, the Future verse sounds incredibly out of place. It is the first song on any of her major projects that features anyone other than twigs, and it really detracts from the personal nature of the rest of the album. His verse is uninspired and adds nothing to the song lyrically. This track is the only real misstep in an otherwise near-perfect album.

Despite one mediocre track, “Magdalene” is still one of the best and most interesting albums released all year. It continues a streak of incredible music released by twigs, and is a very worthy successor to “LP1.” Somehow, twigs has managed to push herself further and further into a league of her own, and, at this point, is a genre unto herself. There is no one in the music industry who sounds remotely like her, and I doubt that anyone else will any time soon.