FKA Twigs Weaves Her Worries Into a Mind-Bending Soundscape on ‘Magdalene’

The most consummate artists often grow restless within the confines of their prescribed roles and seek further outlets for fuller expression. Tahliyah Barnett, better known as FKA Twigs, exemplifies this phenomenon at its best. Having started off as a dancer, and landed parts in numerous major artists’ music videos in her native UK, she eventually tried her hand at making her own music in 2012, and took the world by storm. Within a year, she was racking up accolades, being hailed as a singular, forward force in a dull, tired scene. Often lazily labeled with an R&B tag, Barnett only slightly dables in that genre, channeling whatever she takes from it into a futuristic, avant-garde, electronic, trip-hop spectacle that manages to propel bodies into motion and set chins stroking simultaneously. Her 2014 debut album “LP1” showcased a thrilling, distinctive voice, pushing boundaries centrifugally. The followup, “Magdalene,” skips levels, and boldly breaks new ground. Since her last album, Barnett has undergone a public parting of ways with Hollywood heartthrob Robert Pattinson, as well as the trauma of laparoscopic surgery, both of which have only fueled her fire, and led to her most genius work to date. 

Many genre labels have been leveled at FKA Twigs, some more accurate than others, but one that has some truth to it is “trip-hop.” Among that style’s most defining, pioneering acts is Portishead, and Barnett’s opener “Thousand Eyes” sounds like a natural extrapolation and extension of the aesthetic that Portishead first introduced, bigger, darker, and scaled to fit the present moment — or better yet, the future. From the onset, the music has a fairy tale feel in its fantastical stylings, albeit a dark moment — the introduction of a villain, the first sign of a heroine’s vulnerability. Over an ominous, threadbare backdrop, rich with subtle atmospherics, Barnett trods along, and vocals pile up and multiply, with chainsaw synths and dripping, mercurial bass, splintering and sputtering in a showcase of some serious sound art. Barnett warily repeats, “If I walk out the door, it starts our last goodbye,” setting the stage for the saga to follow. Eventually, she shrieks, “It’s going to be comfortable,” which is anything but the truth. Barnett’s production is magnificent. There’s a poignant piano figure set to breaths and spliced vocals, reminiscent of IDM virtuoso Holly Herndon. As the song develops, Barnett’s vocal journey is accentuated by sweeps and swooshes, her up-close vocals at times approaching ASMR value, and creating an altogether beautiful, deconstructed, chaotic mess.

“Home With You” begins with cloudy, minimal piano, reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails, along with Barnett whispering as up-front as possible, with both her meter and hushed delivery evoching Kim Gordon’s in Sonic Youth’s “Bull in the Heather.” Her singing steadily intensifies until she winds up in a deranged howl, as if having reached a system overload. In a flash, she reverts to an angelic pitch, and flutters about, as the piano keeps up, mirroring her every fleeting expression, along with electric, spastic percussion, machine gun sound boards, clamps, and splats, a rich chorus full of stacked voices, ornate classical filigree, and saxophone indulgence. The lyrics get excruciatingly personal, as when Barnett sings, “Apples, cherries, pain / Breathe in, breathe out, pain.” This is a reference to her experience undergoing laparoscopic surgery in 2017 to remove fibroid tumours from her uterus. In an Instagram post at the time, she described the tumors by comparing them to fruit, detailing “two cooking apples… three kiwis” and going on to bemoan, “My confidence as a woman was knocked.” This is where the album’s title comes into play, as Barnett claims to have found direction in the story of Mary Magdalene. The precise allure is elusive, but involves the idea of power without vanity, and of a combined grace and inspiration. A striking line is “If you’d have just told me / I’d be running down the hills to you,” presumably a reference to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” It’s telling that Barnett mentioned running “down the hills” rather than up them, as she really is on a pedestal, and the reference is apt, as Bush’s influence is all over this record.   

That influence especially comes out on “Sad Day,” with Barnett sounding like a wide-eyed, possibly possessed child, very Kate Bush in her phrasing, eccentricity, the switching between whispered vocals and “Ah ah” detours, and the wildly idiosyncratic snippets thrown in. A drum ‘n’ bass beat enters and disappears, as if Barnett is latching on to the grooves of a track, taking a brief wild ride, and then shifting off track, assuming the spotlight, and taking it all as it comes. She builds on themes teased in the previous song, singing, “Taste the fruit of me / Make love to all you see.” Overall, the song is an affirmation of what the opening track portended, as Barnett verifies, “So it’s time / And it’s a sad day for sure.” Next, she makes a bolder example yet of a 2019 update on trip-hop, enlisting ubiquitous Auto-tune enthusiast Future for “Holy Terrain.” The track rings like something out of an alternate universe, especially when you consider that Future is a featured artist rather than one incorporated into a remix. He opens the track dropping lines like “Sent my girl to church with some drug money,” and then Barnett takes the reigns, singing about faith and fidelity, as roaring engines and metallic clangs punctuate her outpourings. For the last third, Future steps back in for a bit of his usual fare, and the whole experience is surreal.  

“Mary Magdalene” begins with chimes that recall the productions of Pantha du Prince. Barnett sings, “A woman’s touch, a sacred geometry,” her front vocal backed by heavily processed counterparts, as if to mock her entreaty about “a woman’s touch” by offering a rival machine touch, and provoking doubt and despair. But soon, the processed vocals dissipate, and Barnett endures, sounding theatrical as ever, with hocketing backing vocals, meticulous layering, and strategically placed strident scrapes. The last third sounds like a trap beat sent through phasers, and played with tongs, with an ascending melody spun around wheels and gears. Perhaps the edgiest lyrics of the album are “Come just a little bit closer to me… I can lift you higher / I do it like Mary Magdalene.” Barnett is blending sanctity and seduction, and the results are confoundingly thrilling. 

It goes on unsparingly, with “Fallen Alien” striking like an incisive cut straight to the the heart. The wealth of detail on display here is truly remarkable, and short sonic snippets make all the difference. There’s a sound of a car drawing to a pause, fused with a descending melodic slide. A frenetic rhythm intensifies and builds to a dramatic pause, letting Barnett’s lone voice shine. She sings, “In this age of Satan / I’m searching for a light to take me home and guide me out,” bellowing with vibrato, and changing her tone for a fleeting moment with dramatic zeal upon the word “Satan.” The music gets just discordant enough to strike a nerve, and it all devolves into a madcap, deranged, sexy circus.

“Mirrored Heart” is the inevitable lull after all the frenzy that preceded. A mere suggestion of a beat trudges along, and Barnett sings as if in an extended sigh, as a tangled mess of wires short circuit around her. The song is like a sustained, accepting lamentation, with Barnett reflecting, “And for the lovers who found a mirrored heart / They just remind me I’m without you.” “Day Bed” is an extension of the same sentiment. Barnett sounds more Kate Bush than ever in her delivery, churning out a litany of phrases that sound as if clipped from archaic poetry, singing, “Aching is my laughter / Busy is my pastime,” over faint, restrained strings in a drawn-out meditation, letting them pile on, slowly building tension until it’s overwhelming. She is at once up-close and larger than life, subject to flights of passion, as the track escalates and fades out, leaving you in excited abeyance.

The lead single “Cellophane” is left for the very end. In her promotion of the album, Barnett has gone straight to the main point, rightfully confident that she’ll make enough of an impact to make listeners seek out the surrounding stories and sentiments. It’s important to remember that FKA Twigs is a multidisciplinary artist, and whatever you take from this song will be multitudinously enhanced when you see its spellbinding music video. That said, the song brings the heated affair to a twisted, creaky close, without quite reaching resolution. Barnett’s intimate vocal appears over lone piano, which becomes warped in tone, creating a haunting backdrop. The rickety, ramshackle beat trudges along, as Barnett spurts out on impassioned whims, and spins around it in devilish whirlwinds. Her final words are “They’re hating / They’re waiting / And hoping / I’m not enough,” a chilling, resonant reminder of the world rooting against you.  

Ending on such a note can make the most upbeat spirits despair. But remember that after all, this is a designedly dramatic production, and tragic as the end may seem, the greater picture is profoundly inspiring. “Magdalene” is the soundtrack to a recovery from both physical and emotional shattering. The final thought is not a sad wallow, but rather a fearless acknowledgment of dark realities, and a resilient posturing in the end. Barnett has truly outdone herself on this album, taking the genius that her music always showcased to unprecedented heights. It’s a cutting-edge sonic adventure from a genre-bending, uncompromising visionary. There are very few albums that demonstrate such an ideal pairing of musical instincts to lyrical underpinnings. “Magdalene” is touching and thrilling. 

Magdalene” is available Nov. 8 on Apple Music.