My music fandom is a fickle thing. I can become obsessed with a record, declare an artist to be one of my favourites, and then dismiss my attachment to them after a few months without listening to their songs. This is pretty much what just happened with FKA twigs, who I can confidently tell you is one of my favourite working musicians. I love the singular nature of her craft: the precisely constructed songs; the voice that communicates as much with tone as it does with words; the arresting visuals she so carefully choreographs to accompany her songs. Her discography is basically flawless to me. Her early EPs are as good as her only album to date (which I believe is one of the decade’s best). She is, in a word, brilliant.
‘Holy Terrain’, the single that accompanied Magdalene’s announcement in September, made me temporarily forget all of this. Its stock trap beat, post-peak Future feature, and flat lyrics make it without a doubt the blandest thing that Twigs has done and had me thinking – has she lost it? Four years have passed since her last proper release, the exquisite M3LL155X, and the kind of turmoil she has been through – heartache, health issues, ASAP Rocky features – are enough to knock anyone out of a rich creative streak (I know, that is harsh but Testing was terrible). The sheer amount of press that she was doing to promote the new album had me concerned as well – was this an overblown PR drive for a mediocre, mainstream-crossover album?
Then, on Magdalene’s release day, I hit play on opener ‘Thousand Eyes’, and realised that there was nothing to worry about.
Twigs has always had an impeccable sense for selecting collaborators that suit her music perfectly. Whether it’s her early co-productions with Tic and Arca, or her work with Paul Epworth, Clams Casino, and Boots on her last couple of releases, well and lesser-known names have complemented her changing musical styles. Nicolas Jaar’s name recurs across the credits on Magdalene and as soon as the first piano notes creep into the first track, it seems that there has never been a more ideal pairing. Like Jaar’s Sirens opener ‘Killing Time’, the subtle instrumental steadily rises and falls in the background, gently accompanying the delicate poise of the lyrics. Like all of Twigs’ best work, the craft is meticulous and it’s all the more powerful for the restraint of the production.
The best moments on Magdalene do this. The centrepiece, ‘Mary Magdalene’ is another one with Jaar’s fingerprints on it. Similarly to ‘Thousand Eyes’, wonderful instrumental flourishes like the music box-like introduction and careful piano notes punctuate the silence and perfectly set the tone for Twigs’ haunting lyrics about the power of femininity. ‘Sad Day’ is a tightly constructed pop song: short, mournful verses give way to a simple but memorable chorus – it’s everything that ‘Holy Terrain’ isn’t. ‘Fallen Alien’ is the most out-there thing here and is all the better for it – its manic exclamations provide a welcome shot of anger to the stream of sadness that pervades a lot of the record.
Twigs has set a high benchmark for consistency with her previous work and there are a couple of moments on Magdalene that fall short of that. Though it works better in sequence with other songs on the album, ‘Holy Terrain’ is still a weak spot. And ‘Home With You’, another pre-album release, also feels like it needed more work – its raspy auto-tuned verse and softly cooed chorus are nice separate ideas, but don’t quite gel properly in execution. As they’re two of only nine songs here, it makes the record feel a little slighter than her previous LP.
But they are rare low points on a record that has many highs, closing with two of them. We’ve spent a lot of time with ‘Cellophane’ since its release in April and it’s no less stunning now – even if its familiarity slightly dulled its impact as a closer for me. It’s ‘Daybed’ that stands as the record’s undisputed highlight for me, though. The sole remaining song from a series of sessions with Oneohtrix Point Never, the way Twigs’ poetic, aching vocals sit on top of the swirling ambient atmosphere is powerful beyond belief (just listen to the way she drags out the syllables of the word “daybed” in the final verse). It recalls the skeletal construction of ‘Pendulum’, my favourite song of hers, in the way that it’s incredibly minimal (you can almost feel the silent canvas it’s painted on) but the subtle sounds and tonal shifts chosen to fill the silence are so perfectly judged. Like all of my favourite songs, it’s hard to explain why it works so devastatingly – there’s something in the sound that gets me in my soul.
I’ve gone on about that sound a lot here. And that’s not to say that I don’t think FKA twigs isn’t an excellent lyricist – she is. It’s just that she gives equal weight to the words, the vocals, the production, and the visuals to create such a cohesive atmosphere with her music. It’s a meticulous approach that illustrates what a complete artist she is and why I hold her in such high esteem. Magdalene is in many ways a triumph, and while I don’t think it trumps some of her other work, its highs are breathtaking. Tahliah, I’ll never doubt you again.
Words by Tom Burrows.