Leading up to the release of MAGDALENE was the release of the music video for "cellophane," a track whose hook is a volley of armor-piercing questions that are never met with a satisfactory answer. "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?" In the video, FKA Twigs is painted in gold and surrounded by still curtains, contorting and spinning around a pole seemingly suspended between heaven and hell. In the second half of the video, she plummets through darkness and finds herself in a realm full of red clay and smothering herself with it, as though embarking on a new act of creation.
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FKA Twigs spent a year learning how to pole dance to express her vision for "cellophane." It's one of the best music videos of 2019, if not the best.
It's also a fitting introduction for the rest of MAGDALENE, an album that perfectly marries sultriness and ache. Like FKA Twigs' inimitable falsetto, it is a siren sound, one that both draws you in and gets you in the mood to be dashed against wave-beat rocks. This is an emotional overlap we've come to expect from the British singer-songwriter—whether it's the haunted lullaby of "Water Me" from EP2, or the pugnacious voguery of "In Time," from M3LLI55X. MAGDALENE however is noticeably more loaded with ache, FKA Twigs' artistic conceits turned up.
The first track “thousand eyes” is a soft, subdued dirge, where FKA Twigs' vocals come through like a choir rehearsing melodies in a haunted chapel. In the next track, home with you, we get a clearer picture of the artist's lyrical method of attack. "Never seen a hero like me in a sci-fi / But I'd save a life if I thought it belonged to you / Mary Magdalene would never let her loved ones before," she sings. It's a breathtaking gesture of intertextualization, taking the Biblical figure and all her connotations—shunned woman, rumored lover of a sacred figure—and using her as a kind of persona to negotiate loneliness, intimacy, and expressions of love gone askew. On top of that, there is the way FKA Twigs lifts the addressee of her unresponsive lover to godly heights, such as in "fallen alien." "I never thought that you would be the one to tie me down / But you did / In this age of Satan / I'm searching for a light to take me home and guide me out."
My personal favorite song of the album is sad day, where elegant vocal work hovers above a roiling sea of distorted percussion and abrasive synths. Melodically it feels like a cut from Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes. Like in "Winter," when Tori Amos sings "When you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?" It's a question that resonates with the choral one in sad day: "Would you make a, make a, make a wish on my love?" It's a plea that's both earnest and vindictive, an offered concession belying an ungraspable hurt.
These vindictive, confrontational supplications are all over MAGDALENE. For example, holy terrain has "Will you still be there for me, once I'm yours to obtain? Once my fruits are for taking and you flow through my veins?" Her song "mirrored heart" is more direct: "Did you want me at all?" And of course, the hope and tragedy of "cellophane."
There is a power to FKA Twigs' lyricism that prevents these spurned pleadings from falling into the trap door of melodrama. (Personally, her poetics remind me of the poetry of Sharon Olds, specifically her book "Stag's Leap," a kind of autopsy for a failed relationship.) A clue to deciphering this could be in "mary magdalene," where the persona is fully embraced, as muffled booms and a sea of reverb lift a woman punished by both history and mythology to a position of agency. "A woman's touch / A sacred geometry / I know where you start, where you end / How to please, how to curse."
There is a sacred geometry to the whole of MAGDALENE, each piece coming together to form a story only FKA Twigs can tell, as universal as the experience of regret may be. When the album wraps up with "cellophane," we are left where FKA Twigs must have ended up: in a realm of questions with no closure, cornered into a place where we have no choice but to begin anew.