Instead of releasing a break-up album of empowering anthems, twigs embraces her devastation and reminds us these feelings are not a weakness
When she performed her new album MAGDALENE live in London for the first time in May this year, FKA twigs reduced Alexandra Palace to a stunned hush. It was a fearsomely athletic performance, featuring vogueing, pole dancing, and swordplay – but she was at her most magnetic when she stood alone in front of the curtain to deliver a still, solo encore of her single “cellophane”, a song so desperate it can be physically painful to listen to. “Didn’t I do it for you? Why don’t I do it for you?”
It was a marked contrast from the first time twigs showed “cellophane” to the world, in a music video that she trained for a year to make. A profound physical achievement, the video shows her pole dancing before being flung through CGI-animated space, the gargantuan heels on her feet making the sounds of swords being unsheathed. At the end of the clip, all you can hear is the sound of her breathing, like a gymnast who has just completed a routine.
It was a very deliberate choice to first show “cellophane” to the world in a form that couldn’t possibly be read as weak. “To be asking somebody ‘Didn’t I do it for you?’ while doing these amazing tricks on the pole,” twigs said in a behind-the-scenes film when she released the video, “to me, there’s almost something humorous about that... it’s sick and it’s funny and it feels powerful like… I’m more than enough. You can’t even handle it.”
MAGDALENE is the sound of twigs at her lowest, battered and bruised both emotionally and physically as she pieced herself back together after heartbreak and illness in 2017. (After having surgery to remove benign tumours from her uterus, she wrote on Instagram that all others who’ve endured the same are “amazing warriors”.) In the album’s press notes, she writes, “I never thought heartbreak could be so all-encompassing. I never thought that my body could stop working to the point that I couldn’t express myself physically.” MAGDALENE is an album about finding power in that pain. Matthew Stone, the artist who digitally painted a heavy-limbed twigs for the album cover, told Pitchfork that he wanted to make her look “really strong” in the album imagery, giving her inflated, exaggerated muscles.
On the surface, it may not sound strong. Rather than the classic break-up album journey – from devastation to empowerment – twigs follows the arc in reverse. The first half of the record sees her grappling with herself and her relationship, fighting to keep sadness at bay, even though her attempts at positivity are pierced through with darkness. The Future-featuring, trap-channelling “holy terrain” is a defiant dance anthem declaring that she needs a man who can handle her when she’s not her best self. On “sad day”, she starts out trying to tempt her lover with sweet choral chant, before devolving into an urgent, distorted coda where she admits, “I made you sad before”.
“To hide behind faux-confident, bombastic anthems would have been, in many ways, the easier option”
On “home with you”, she’s similarly divided. Her low-prowling spoken word verses prickle with anger – “The more you burn away, the more that people earn from you / The more you pull away, the more that they depend on you” – but rupture into devastated guilt on the soft, piano-fuelled choruses. She flits back and forth between wanting to protect herself, and wanting to protect the person she loves. In the video, that push-pull feeling is heightened as she flits between a rave on Kingsland Road in east London, and the pastoral fields of her childhood home in Gloucestershire.
Also on “home with you”, twigs valourises the biblical figure of Mary Magdalene, singing “Mary Magdalene would never let her loved ones down”, while seeming torn between whether to run to her loved ones or to herself. “I can lift you higher / I do it like Mary Magdalene,” she offers again on “mary magdalene”, promising to make herself into scaffolding, holding up the structure of the man she loves. She gives herself entirely to this role, with electronics flickering beneath her voice like swords clinking against one another. And then, in the following songs, she’s destroyed by it.
From the baroque theatrics of “fallen alien” to the heart-splitting simplicity of “cellophane”, on the second half of this record, FKA twigs allows herself to be be completely devastated. Her vocal reaches dazzling, Kate Bush-esque heights on “fallen alien” as she despairs, “I never thought that you would be the one to tie me down”. In the endlessly spacious production of “mirrored heart”, she stares right into the cavernous mouth of loneliness. If you thought things couldn’t get more bleak from there, the almost entirely percussion-free “day bed”, co-produced with Oneohtrix Point Never, is a fever dream ballad about being bed-bound by depression.
And yet, twigs finds her strength in giving herself over entirely to these emotions. Because to hide behind faux-confident, bombastic anthems would have been, in many ways, the easier option. As twigs told Pitchfork in October, “I sometimes find that a certain type of enforced empowerment is very oppressive... I mean, I am powerful and independent – and incredibly vulnerable and sensitive. As a woman of colour, this idea that I need to be a Nubian queen all the time is very stressful. I do find it problematic to always feel like your icons are always strong and always OK. If that is somebody’s idea of slaying in this time, it’s wildly off the mark.”
MAGDALENE is a reminder that the heart is a muscle, and feeling is not a weakness. (The triumphant chants on “fallen alien” declare: “I... FEEEEL!”) A lot has been written about how twigs’ music finds the strength in vulnerability, and it’s true that on LP1 and M3LI55A, she played with the power dynamics of submission and traditional femininity. But it would be safe to say that MAGDALENE is simply an album about strength, full stop. As she snarls on “home with you”, twigs has “never seen a hero like (her) in a sci-fi”. FKA twigs offers us a new archetype for the strong, brave hero, running counter to her observation that women of colour in the spotlight have to be “always OK”. Instead, twigs’ hero is a sensitive soul who is not afraid to be overwhelmed by pain and emotions, and to be in love. At Alexandra Palace, as her voice shuddered on the final, desperate words of “cellophane” that close the album, “I’m not enough”, she was the most powerful person in the room.