English R&B singer/producer FKA twigs, Tahliah Barnett, is a mad scientist of the genre, throwing vitalizing electricity at a track until it lives. Her approach is avant-garde but not difficult to access, even for a casual listener. Her latest album “Magdalene” is the first recorded music from her since 2016, following three EPs and her studio debut “LP1”. With this slew of projects she has earned a reputation as experimental, with each new recording pushing her towards new ground. This new album, however, sees an even further reinvention.
This is Barnett’s first album post-Robert Pattinson, who she famously dated for years prior to a recent break-up. “Magdalene” makes you feel every tiny emotion of her experience, spanning the stages of grief and placing the listener at ground zero for the waves of confusion and despair she’s enduring. She does this loosely under the frame of Biblical character Mary Magdalene, a figure whom she claims to identify with and who is name-dropped several times across the record. When this is consistent enough, you almost get the feeling that you’re listening to a concept album following the progression of a Biblical-era woman struggling to understand and cope with the feelings of rejection inherent to her place in society. This parallel only serves to heighten the emotional cogency of the record when viewed as a collection of distraught pinings from a modern-day R&B singer.
FKA Twigs’ lyricism depicts a woman who, through her pain, retains a gentle hand and passion. There are times when the atmosphere around her is matriarchal and thunderous, embracing her image of Mary Magdalene and forming it into an icon. In that same breath, however, she finds her way back down to earth and rationalizes these grandiosities in relation to her very real, palpable feelings. This is no bitter attempt at a last word to her ex- this is not that kind of breakup album. Sonically and conceptually, twigs seeks to explore, and to understand.
This is not to say it doesn’t have a bit of a chip on its shoulder at times, and perhaps rightfully so. “I’ve never seen a hero like me in a sci-fi” she spits on “home with you”, reflecting on the lopsided representation of heroes in today’s media. “Mary Magdalene” is a hauntingly melodic, vocoder-infused disparaging of the historical misrepresentation that even the most heroic women suffer. Barnett builds to these moments, and others, in such a way that the rest of the album feels like a foundation for them. When this works, it results in a tension-and-release cycle that bolsters the emotional impact of the track. When the release is unsatisfactory, or the build up is a plateau, it results in tedium.
The album, without a doubt, hits stunning highs. The lead single “Cellophane” is operatic, with soaring high note drops and impassioned vocal deliveries. “Home with you” is equal parts soft soliloquy and gritty, distorted R&B durge. The melodies across the board are refreshingly vital and delivered with striking effervescence. Although Barnett’s production doesn’t shy away from electronic elements, she doesn’t play directly into what you might expect given her past recordings. Consistently, these tracks display a diverse range of organic warmth atop a layer cake of detailed instrumentals. Without leashing herself too narrowly, she stays true the concept as consistently as one could hope.
On the other hand, her penchant for exploration leads to a few detours that meddle the focus of the project and lag behind in execution. The first such track to come to mind is the collaboration with hip hop artist Future, entitled “holy terrain”. There is nothing like it on the rest of the album, leaving you with the feeling it was lumped in with the rest of the tracks as a sort of b-side. The latter half of the album as a whole slows down immensely as it builds towards the conclusion, and while a change of pace is not inherently negative there is an undeniable lull on tracks such as “daybed” which offer nothing to the album in sound or sentiment.
That said, FKA twigs did not keep her audience waiting for two years without reason. This project is an impressive coalescence of the intense pain she’s felt since we last heard from her in 2016. For its few shortfalls, Barnett still delivers proficient songwriting, ethereal production and eerily gorgeous vocal performances. “Magdalene” is a masterful addition to FKA twigs’ discography, and amongst 2019’s most worthwhile listens for fans of the genre. B+.