The figure of Mary Magdalene has provided musicians with fertile inspiration for aeons, and for good reason: a kind of ancient cipher, she stands alongside Medea and Medusa as one of the most malleable and mouldable characters of historical fiction, a woman who can represent anything from feminine evil incarnate to a symbol of pure (or puritan) devotion. Most recently, Lady Gaga interpreted her – as many do – as a “biblical prostitute”, a glamorous and tragic figure with little depth beyond her relation to Jesus.
British experimentalist FKA twigs, on the other hand, takes a different tack. On her second full-length album, Magdalene, she redraws Magdalene as a devoted disciple, a figure analogous to any number of scorned or heartbroken women who cannot help but love so deeply and devoutly that it destroys them. The concept sounds convoluted on paper, but the reality is far from it: Magdalene is a fearless and essential work of experimental electronic music, one whose ambitious scope never detracts from its pained and emotional centre.
When she debuted in 2012, twigs was unknowable. Her background as a dancer for artists such as Jessie J and Ed Sheeran belied the abject strangeness of her music, and the discomforting feelings it elicited. Her music was often classified as pop or R&B, a misconception twigs herself attributes to racist attitudes – about where black artists fit in the musical landscape – on the part of the music media. In reality, the music of her early records EP1 and EP2 was far more sparse and irregular than anything in the worlds of pop and R&B: songs such as “Papi Pacify” and “Hide” used clattering, inorganic production and twigs’ peerless voice to conjure something alien and new. Her early visuals, such as a clip in which a man appears to be sexually choking and smothering her, added a dynamic that felt dangerous, transgressive.
This uncompromising aesthetic has won twigs a colossal fan base, bringing her fascinating abstractions to a massive audience. At this point, three EPs and one full-length record in, twigs undeniably has the same kind of fame as many pop stars, despite the fact the form in which she works – she is a producer too, giving the project an auteurist bent – as well as the project’s wilfully upsetting qualities, would seem to preclude her from existing in such a sphere. Indeed, in the lead-up to Magdalene – in which twigs collaborated with the extremely famous New York rapper A$AP Rocky, and conducted high-profile relationships with actors Shia LaBeouf and Robert Pattinson – twigs’ stardom has risen to a level unprecedented for an experimental artist, let alone one who hasn’t released a full-length album in five years.
On a purely aesthetic level, this new-found exposure doesn’t seem to have affected twigs’ art. On an emotional level, though, it has altered the way she writes, and how she fundamentally sees the world. From the earliest moments of Magdalene, something is different: pervading the album is a paranoia that seems to stem from twigs’ new fame. On opener “thousand eyes”, a traditional break-up narrative – “If I walk out the door it starts our last goodbye,” she sings – gives way to a more terrifying prospect: leaving the house in a time of emotional turmoil only to be harangued by fans and paparazzi. “If you don’t pull me back it wakes a thousand eyes,” she continues, repeating those two lines over and over in her signature wavering soprano.
On LP1, twigs’ lyrics seemed to convey an internal narrative that was sealed off from the outside world, with songs such as “Two Weeks” and “Pendulum” playing out fantasy narratives of potential lives with lovers. Throughout Magdalene, this interiority is punctured by the hawkish eyes of fans and the press, and twigs often expresses a fear of the outside world, or a feeling of being watched from all angles. On “home with you”, she sings about how “the more you have, the more that people want from you”; during the record’s final moments, on “cellophane”, she admits that outside pressure is eating away at her, and she is afraid “they’re watching us, they’re hating”. This spectre of paranoia and pain hangs over Magdalene even more than the album’s central conceit; it feels more heartbreaking each time it arises.
In an interview with i-D, twigs said that Magdalene is about “every lover that I’ve ever had, and every lover that I’m going to have”. This flattening of time is not new in her work – the same concept has appeared in different ways on “Two Weeks”, ‘Pendulum”, “Hours”, “In Time” and others – but this is the first time she’s stretched the idea over an entire album. The most obvious way in which this idea manifests is in how she sings about generalised relationships across the album. On “mary magdalene”, as well as “holy terrain,” a collaboration with Atlanta rapper Future, she sings in grandiose, abstract terms (“My love is so bountiful for a man who can follow his heart”) that give the impression of Magdalene as some kind of ancient text for which twigs is merely a conduit. Having Future guest on “holy terrain” is particularly apt: on his pained solo albums, he strikes the figure of a Lothario perpetually attempting to atone for his sins; on “holy terrain”, twigs plays the dedicated apostle trying to guide him to the light.
These songs are so visceral in their emotionality that it’s easy to ignore how formally experimental twigs often is in her production, as well as in the structure of her songs. “home with you” essentially consists of three distinct but complementary movements, beginning with something akin to rapping and ending with a lush, overwhelming orchestral coda, while “mirrored heart” is traditional pop balladry that is ravaged, made grotesque, by metallic groans and a screeching, squelching synth texture that sounds akin to a sample of the noise made by the first printing press. On “fallen alien”, pitch-shifted choral samples add a sinister element to what’s already a hazy mass of techno drums and buzz-saw synths. So many songs on Magdalene shift in tenor and tone so slowly that it’s easy to forget how much they’ve changed over the course of five or so minutes.
Despite the extreme pain and sadness that manifests throughout, Magdalene does not carry the same sense of seriousness that LP1 or its follow-up, M3LL155X, did. In fact, there’s a strain of camp to the entire record, partially due to its inherently camp concept – it is, after all, an electronic record about Mary Magdalene – but also due to the thrillingly overblown theatricality twigs lends to her performances. Unlike on LP1, she is stretching and re-forming her voice with every note here, trilling and yelling, sometimes pushing herself to a scream or, on songs such as “mirrored heart”, opting for plainly traditional showmanship in the style of a musical theatre vocalist. To be sure, Magdalene is never funny, but the record’s more surreal moments, such as the panto-ish coda of the loud, shuddering “fallen alien”, feel as though twigs is acknowledging it would be difficult to make a concept record about Mary Magdalene without being a little ridiculous.
To be sure, Magdalene can be overwhelming. It is an album that is by turns eerily quiet and shockingly loud, preoccupied with suffering both biblical and profoundly modern. But twigs sets her scene with such finely wrought detail and fills it with such power and conviction that it’s hard to see this as anything less than a landmark work from an artist operating at the height of her power. Befitting its title, Magdalene is a triumph born from nothing less than pure devotion.
OPERA The Mikado
Festival Theatre, Adelaide, until November 23
MULTIMEDIA Japan Supernatural
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until March 8
VISUAL ART Anne Wallace: Strange Ways
QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, until February 23
THEATRE The Audition
La Mama Courthouse, Melbourne, November 13-24
QUEER Feast Festival
Venues throughout Adelaide, until November 24
Sydney Opera House, until November 23
VISUAL ART The Lester Prize
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, under December 9
VISUAL ART Quilty
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until February 2
MUSIC Australian Brandenberg Orchestra: Vivaldi's Four Seasons
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne, November 9-10
City Recital Hall, Sydney, November 13 and 15
CABARET Apocalypse Meow: Crisis is Born
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until December 1
FESTIVAL Sydney Architecture Festival
Venues throughout Sydney, November 11-17
VISUAL ART Artists with Conviction
Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart, until November 16
TEXTILES Desert Lines: Batik from Central Australia
Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria, until November 17
VISUAL ART Painting on Country
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until November 10
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 9, 2019 as "Poetry in devotion".
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