FKA twigs – ‘MAGDALENE’ Review

The avant-garde artist reclaims her narrative in sophomore album

FKA twigs by Matthew Stone

Since the release of her first single, “Water Me” in 2013, Tahliah Barnett, or as she is professionally known, FKA twigs, has been renowned to be an antithesis to the conventions of making music. Her spacious and angelic voice integrated into skeletal and glitchy production (a style reminiscent of icons such as Bjork and Kate Bush) has set twigs apart from other artists. Twigs’ repertoire consistently breaks itself out of genre norms, often reappropriating elements from R&B, trap, choral, and electronic music. She incorporates this musical experimentation with mesmerizing choreography and even more mesmerizing imagery in her performances, which not only helps to build her visual and musical aesthetic, but proves twigs to be an idiosyncratic virtuoso and an example of what true artistry is.

The pop star was forced to take a break after the release of her debut album, LP1. This was much due to having to undergo laparoscopic surgery and a very public breakup with a high profile vampire. Twigs’ life seemed to have spiralled out of control, and she was forced to reconnect with her body while also processing the repercussions of a broken heart. This state of sorrow and pure vulnerability results in the creation of MAGDALENE. After a turbulent four-year absence, the singer has emerged from the dark to gift us her long-awaited sophomore album; a stunning and introspective collection of songs about reclaiming feminine power and learning how to face the emotional fallout of heartbreak.

MAGDALENE album cover art by Matthew Stone

Throughout the album, twigs draws inspiration and strength from the namesake of the album, Mary Magdalene, a biblical figure whose stories twigs claimed to have found solace in, and the New Testament’s most controversial characters. Twigs explores the dichotomy between virtue and sin (Magdalene was often labelled as both a prostitute and a saint throughout history) that exists within Magdalene’s archetype, and uses that as a metaphor for what a woman is. In an interview for BBC Radio 1, she says “as a woman I believe that I can be innocent and pure and fresh, and I can also be dangerous and all-knowing and seductive and powerful and these things can happen at the same time. In modern-day society, women are often put in a position where we have to choose one, and that’s a shame, you know? We’re the most powerful when we can be both.” Twigs wields this idea to subvert oppressive perceptions of women and demands attention through her songwriting and magnetic aura.

The album opens with “thousand eyes.” A slow and repetitive departure from a lover (“If I walk out the door it starts our last goodbye”) sung with polyphonic and echoey vocals over clinical and churchly instrumentals. The rest of the album continues to reflect on all the lessons that Twigs has learned during her absence. The tracks themselves embody the duality of the album’s namesake. MAGDALENE is gentle and ferocious. Tracks like “mirrored heart” and “daybed” are characterized by orchestral and organic instrumentals and emotional lyrics, reminiscent of choral hymns. But that tenderness is abruptly broken by “fallen alien” (a personal favourite) which acts as a narcissistic and vicious reaction to heartbreak, defined by densely layered production and furious inflection. “Home with you” perfectly embodies this duality as well, beginning with hollow piano notes and leading into an assertive crescendo, but then being disrupted by orchestral harmony, which are then interrupted by eerie instrumentation.

The album remains to be a feminist testament to female pain, especially in “mary magdalene,” a track that is not just an homage to the woman behind the album’s name, but an ode to a woman’s power (“A women’s work / A woman’s prerogative / A woman’s time to embrace / She must put herself first / A woman’s touch / A sacred geometry”).

Future’s featured verse on “holy terrain” poses as a questionable decision for FKA twigs, given the rapper’s dubious track record of libelling his former lovers, a reputation that does not exactly fit the album’s predominant themes of female empowerment and healing. It also stands unique from the other tracks with its conventional and mainstream trap beat. However, the Bulgarian folk samples used in the back save the song from being a complete banal throwaway and still helps to maintain its thematic cohesion with the other tracks. In spite of this song debatably being a slight misstep by Twigs, it still remains to be a banger.

FKA twigs at King’s Theatre in Brooklyn on November 20, 2019. By Ahad Subzwari

The album’s lead single, “cellophane” sets the tone for the album. Twigs makes references to her public breakup with Robert Pattinson and the public’s racist comments on her relationship with him (“They’re waiting / They’re watching / They’re watching us / They’re hating / They’re waiting / And hoping / I’m not enough”), all in the style of a soft piano ballad. The song’s release was accompanied with a music video that featured Twigs’ pole dancing (a skill that she has been showing off prior to MAGDALENE‘s release, along with her newly acquired Chinese sword-fighting abilities). This link between Twigs’ pole-dancing and the lines of “cellophane” (“Didn’t I do it for you? / Why don’t I do it for you? / Why won’t you do it for me / When all I do is for you?”) emphasizes the feeling of acting in the service of other people’s pleasure, connecting to the album’s narrative and relationship with Magdalene’s story; she was a woman who lived to support those she loved, but was spat on in return, which is a parallel of twigs’ experiences with slander for her relationship with Pattinson.

Twigs has once again proven herself a force to be reckoned with. Her refusal to let the limitations of genre chain her down has enabled her to break into a league of her own. MAGDALENE tells a story of defiance and reclaiming power for yourself in the face of adversity. It is a call for women to challenge society’s robbery of their value. In spite of twigs’ commentary on how women’s narratives are often tied to men’s, this album is a perfect exhibition of twigs’ capabilities to set herself apart as a powerful artist and individual. And no matter what kind of person you are, hopefully this album inspires you to take control of your own narrative.