From an admittedly selective perspective, Mary Magdalene can be read as one of the most fascinating and inspirational figures in the New Testament. A broken and unfulfilled prostitute who lost the agency of her own body, endured the removal of seven demons and underwent a huge internal transformation that provides her with a newfound sense of purpose and renewed lust for life, only for her entire life to be summed up through her relationship with a man.
FKA twigs has also experienced her share of suffering since her last major release, 2015's ingenious 'M3LL155X' EP, so her affinity with this 2,000 year old symbol of spiritual redemption makes sense. Her much-publicised engagement to Hollywood A-lister Robert Pattinson brought with it a horrifying combination of paparazzi gloating and racist trolling, potentially contributing to the couple's private decision to split in 2017. Having suffered a loss of bodily autonomy in a figurative sense, she was left bed bound for five months after the removal of six large fibroids, an agonising ordeal for a performer as physically engaged as twigs.
Her early EPs and debut album were so ethereal that discussing them in relation to her personal life would have felt rather crass. However, this record is so inextricably rooted in not just the challenges that birthed it, but its creator’s strength and resolve to overcome them, that to focus on just the music without keeping her story in mind would rob the record of the very humanity that sets it apart from her previous, more alien work. Whether it’s her decision to learn to pole-dance to an expert level in less than a year for a music video, or to dive headfirst into the challenging martial art of sword-based wushu, twigs has been on a journey to reclaim the agency of her body and her art through any means necessary.
‘Magdalene’ is the musical extension of this drive for self-possession. twigs seems happy for it to operate on one level as an unabashed break-up album, lanced through with regret and words left unsaid. This is made clear from first track ‘thousand eyes’ when she opens with the devastating couplet, “If I walk out the door, it starts our last goodbye / If you don't pull me back it wakes a thousand eyes". The dovelike trill of her delivery is reminiscent of ‘Sweet Thing’ by now defunct romanticists Wild Beasts. This is a resemblance that runs throughout the album, whether in the carnality of its lyrics – take “Taste the fruit of me, Make love to all you see” on ‘sad day’ or “I'm blue when the Moon hits my skin right, Hot pink when you open up my sweet thighs” on ‘holy terrain’ – or the sonic palette she is working with, her soaring falsetto gliding over a landscape of shimmering piano chords and burbling electronics.
The real break-up ‘Magdalene’ focuses on is not with any lover, however, but an artist breaking with her own past. Being trapped by her own body for so long (an experience vividly described in ‘day bed’, a song so static you can almost hear the dust gathering) seems to have given her something of a Damascene revelation, a decision to stop giving parts of herself away and to radically rethink the way she writes and performs. Almost every track on ‘Magdalene’ is built upwards from a simple piano line, hammering home the impression of someone delicately yet decisively knitting themselves back together after coming undone. ‘cellophane’ is the perfect conclusion to this journey, a highly-charged ballad that grasps ever higher before reaching a state of tranquil self-acceptance. After being trapped in a cocoon state depicted on the album’s cover, twigs does not want to go back to being the avant-garde oddity she was before.
Instead she has knitted her own wings, tentatively fluttering into a future of infinite possibilities.
Words: Josh Gray
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