FKA Twigs’ 2014 debut full-length, LP1, saw the British singer-songwriter assume the throne as the new, reluctant queen of alternative R&B. Although she hasn’t been totally inactive these last five years—aside from 2018’s guest sport on A$AP Rocky’s “Fukk Sleep,” she released the critically lauded EP M3LL155X in 2015 and non-album single “Good to Love” in 2016—there has been much speculation as to her artistic direction in the interim, which saw the more experimental end of R&B start to dwindle and fade.
The hype around her highly anticipated sophomore album, Magdalene, began as early as April this year with the release of teaser track, “Cellophane,” rightly praised for her painfully moving vocal performance and its starkly subtle, minimal arrangement driven by earnest, melancholy piano. This was a new FKA Twigs: vulnerable and emotionally raw (“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?”) while maintaining the unpredictability of efforts past, but only in a melodic sense that’s less reliant on off-kilter beats. The heart-wrenching ballad’s placement as this album’s closer and anti-climactic finish may leave listeners wanting more; real life doesn’t always guarantee closure.
Elsewhere, “Home with You” features chord progressions reminiscent of Kid A/Amnesiac-era Radiohead not only in instrumentation and piano chord voicings but also the treatment of FKA Twigs’ voice. “I’ve never seen a hero like me in a sci-fi” she sings during the song’s bridge, her voice becoming increasingly distorted and extra-terrestrial as the emotional gravitas intensifies, before a harmonious left-turn on the song’s chorus and swells of strings and woodwinds. The notion of the otherworldly is one FKA Twigs plays with again on album highlight “Fallen Alien,” somehow the closest thing to an instant pop classic and the most experimental track on the album thanks to its sharp, unsettling choral samples and heavy drill beat; Twigs’ bugged out, jerky vocals at the beginning of the track encapsulate the idea of an alien trying to relate to us humans before becoming deranged. And while Future feature “Holy Terrain” could be accused of being a blatant attempt at gaining radio airplay, its in-the-pocket beat (produced by Skrillex and Jack Antonoff amongst several others) and the repeated backup ad libs of “I cry” and “I try for you” reveal a subversion of gender roles in the R&B genre.
The album’s flow is deliberately jarring. Piano ballads give way to straight-up bangers or stark, vocal-led avant-pop workouts. Opening track “Thousand Eyes” reveals a lot in that it reveals very little, its transcendent, mysterious, coy vocals and subdued instrumentation drawing the listener closer only to be thrown for a loop on “Home with You.” Later, the slow-burning but constantly building “Daybed” clashes with “Cellophane,” but the juxtapositions of tone and feel on Magdalene reflect the mind and heart of its creator from the inception to recording of these songs. It’s these contrasts that consume “Daybed,” her depressive state banishing her to painful, lonely uncomfortable scenarios, their positive counterparts impossible to reach (“Busy is my pastime/ Telling is my silence”).
Magdalene affirms FKA Twigs’ turn from alternative R&B iconoclast to art pop auteur by wearing its influences on its sleeve. The harsh, postmodern, Björk-like sound of “Sad Day” is met with a Kate Bushesque, refined vocal cadence. A nod to Bush is present too in the lyrics to “Home with You” (“If you’d have just told me, I’d be running down the hills to you”), and on the stiff vocal intro to “Mary Magdalene.” While the influence of Hounds of Love and Homogenic are clear throughout Magdalene, it is always in the form of homage rather than mimicry. It is also clear from her dedication to building, climbing, growing songs and carefully arranged instrumentals (like “Mary Magdalene”) and impactful, conceptual lyrics. The story of Mary Magdalene runs throughout the album in dealing with the perception and nature of women.
FKA Twigs may not be the most technically impressive singer in the world, but there is no denying the power of her delivery—breathy, distinctive and, on Magdalene, more expressive and looser than ever before. With this gorgeous, gripping, thought-provoking album, she continues her enigmatic, glass ceiling-smashing trajectory thanks to some spectacular vocal performances and updating the sonic templates left to her by her forebears. Erratic to a point, this is her finest work to date.