FKA twigs Is a Creature of Desire on ‘Magdalene’

For some performers, sexiness is the whole story. For FKA twigs, it’s only where the questions begin.

In the voluptuously disorienting music she has been releasing since 2012, love has been pleasure and pain, sacrifice and self-realization, strife and comfort, public performance and private revelation. FKA twigs (born Tahliah Debrett Barnett) is a dancer and video director as well as a musician, and with her visual projects and concerts she takes on extreme female roles: a larger-than-life goddess, a woman who fights against being smothered, a body in bondage, a student of the proud androgyny of vogueing and, lately, a cosmic pole dancer. It has been four years since the release of the EP “M3LL155X” (pronounced “Melissa”), but FKA twigs has maintained a presence with performances, ads and individual songs.

“Magdalene,” her new album, fixates on another aspect of passion: selfless devotion that expresses faith. In the New Testament, Mary Magdalene was close to Jesus and was the first to recognize the resurrection. Though there are different theories about her historical background, she has been chronicled as a repentant prostitute or even as the lover or wife of Jesus.

“Magdalene” presents the singer as a suffering but loyal disciple, a woman whose love subsumes everything else. The album cover shows FKA twigs’s agitated face in a style suggesting it’s a detail from an old religious painting. In a song called “Mary Magdalene,” she promises to be “true as Mary Magdalene, creature of desire,” with her multitracked voice suspended above sparse, echoey percussion. “Mary Magdalene would never let her loved ones down,” she sings in “Home With You,” a ballad about obligations and commitments that’s produced like a digitally ravaged parlor song.

In some ways the new album is an extrapolation of “Closer,” from FKA twigs’s 2014 album “LP1,” and of her 2016 single, “Good to Love” — both hymnlike tunes with lyrics alluding to faith. Melody is paramount on “Magdalene”; many of the new songs have extended, dramatic vocal lines that float free of an obvious beat.

“Thousand Eyes,” which opens the album, hints at medieval music; “Day Bed,” hovering in an analog haze produced by Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), has the tremulous suspense of Kate Bush. “Sad Day” does have rhythm in its crisp vocal lines, but FKA twigs and the track’s co-producers — including Benny Blanco, Nicolas Jaar and Skrillex — wait a full minute before introducing (with a blast) the drums.

Although “Magdalene” isn’t quite as vertiginous as “LP1” was, there’s still scarce solid ground in an FKA twigs song. Sounds materialize to destabilize the pulse, upend the harmony or just add disruptive noise; gaping silences open up, suddenly isolating her voice in midair. There’s something like a typical trap beat in “Holy Terrain,” probably because FKA twigs is singing about trying to get her man out of trap’s macho milieu, to escape being “bound by his boys and his chains.” Yet that beat falls away during verses; meanwhile, there’s a hook of sampled Bulgarian voices and a guest appearance from Future, sounding even spacier and more disconsolate than usual.

“Cellophane” is a plaint to a straying lover: “Why don’t I do it for you/Why won’t you do it for me/When all I do is for you.” A slow march, it could have been some other singer’s grand buildup of a tear-jerker. Instead, FKA twigs delivers it over austere, Satie-like piano chords, unpredictable gusts of electronics and whispered beatboxing, making her need more intimate. Drama does erupt fitfully in “Mirrored Heart,” as she sings bitterly about unreciprocated love, but then it vanishes, leaving her quietly bereft at the end.

Despite the album title, religion barely figures on “Magdalene.” FKA twigs seeks a person to believe in, not a creed. In these songs, that would be vocation enough, a chance to find transcendence by giving everything. It’s the faith of so many pop songs: the glory of love.

FKA twigs
“Magdalene”
(Young Turks)

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