Monday, November 18, 2019

album review: 'magdalene' by fka twigs

The last time I reviewed FKA twigs, it didn't really go well.

And again, this is one of those cases where of course there was backlash, but it did feel a little unfair - I wanted to like a lot of what I had heard on LP1, I recognized it was genre-pushing and beautifully sung and featured some pretty fascinating and layered lyrical content... but tonally it just didn't click for me. And I've relistened to the album plenty of times in the years since trying to get into it, with the assumption that as I learned more about experimental music and R&B it'd click more strongly... and yet it just didn't. Hell, even though I wasn't really covering EPs in 2015 I tried giving M3LL155X a chance as well over the years, and while I was more accustomed to the sonic palette she was using - you can really hear the fingerprints of Boots all over it, in a similar way to how Arca's influence coloured LP1, it just didn't grip me, a project I respected a hell of a lot more than I liked - which can happen with experimental music, and I've always found backlash for that a little misguided.

And thus I was reticent to cover the new album... until I saw the list of producers, which seemed to imply she was going in a more accessible direction, or at least one where I had more inroads. Sure, the names that'd jump out are Benny Blanco and Skrillex and Sounwave and Kenny Beats and even Jack Antonoff, but the names that caught more of my interest were Oneohtrix Point Never and Nicolas Jaar, the latter of whom has made electronic music I've really liked this decade. And considering the production was often the sticking point for me, maybe this would click way better, so how was MAGDALENE?

So I've been sitting on this review for a little bit, trying to fully process what FKA twigs delivered because it's absolutely a pivot coming off of what she's previously released, shedding many of the R&B elements for tones that rely a lot more on electronica and baroque pop. But moreso then that, MAGDALENE is a project that also dips very heavily into classical iconography, specifically more in the Catholic realm for which I do have some expertise, but also leaves me thinking this project is more ambitious than fully realized, a lot of heavy-handed imagery and themes... that don't quite hit as strongly when meshed with the present, leaving me with an album I think is very good, but not quite great - absolutely another case of a project where I respect it more than I love it.

And a big part of this is linked the Mary Magdalene side of this conversation, so let's start there - and a disclaimer has to be added immediately because of the many complicated figures within the New Testament, Mary Magdalene was more complex than most, especially because there's a lot of conflicting narratives surrounding who she even was and her relationship with Jesus Christ and the rest of the disciples. To condense this as much as I can, Mary Magdalene was a woman to whom Jesus was very close in the canonical Gospels, mentioned by name more than near any other woman and more than more disciples. And this is where things immediately get murky, because that's not the only narrative presented at the time, which is where we have the gnostic gospels, which emphasized a much more prominent role for Magdalene to the point where it was implied she was in a relationship with Jesus, elevated above all other disciples, which has enthralled conspiracy theorists for centuries. Now keep in mind in the days of the early Church, we're talking about nothing close to the religious institution we've seen today - it was a weird cult in Judea that had broken apart societal norms, both in the split from Judaism and an upending of traditional patriarchal gender norms - keep in mind Jesus traveled, ate and drank with tax collectors and prostitutes, and it was a much more even keel between the sexes; that survived even into the canonical Gospels. But after Jesus' death, certain apostles like Peter and Paul made it their job to muscle women out of that picture and into a more subservient role within the Church - you see evidence of this in a lot of Paul's letters - and as such, the gospels emphasizing Jesus' more intimate relationships, whatever they might be, were branded as heresy. All of this was made more complicated by the fact all the Gospels were written by men decades after Jesus' life, both canonical and gnostic, and there's been furious debate between scholars how much any of it was really historically true. And none of this helped by the Gospel of Mary, a gnostic text not written by her, but possibly about Mary Magdalene that centers the feminine perspective as a point against traditional Catholic orthodoxy, and how much any of that can be believed as more than just historical fanfiction... well, these are texts from thousands of years ago, and not a lot is confirmed.

So why is any of this relevant? Well, when you consider the canonical Catholic gospels are what was believed for hundreds upon hundreds of years, you start realizing you're only getting a fraction of the picture, and at least a portion of that fraction is propaganda or at the very least slanted. And that's before we include the texts published in the Middle Ages, which not only became the sort of extremely silly historical fanfiction that's almost too stupid to be believed, but also pushed forward an increasingly ahistorical narrative that has gone on to influence the Dan Browns of the world - which you can kind of tell FKA twigs knows when you look at the text of this album. Case in point, one of the most common stories about Mary Magdalene was that she was a reformed prostitute, and yet that was a narrative built over centuries of misinformation, when in reality there's nothing in any of the Gospels that says it's true... and yet people still believe it to this day. And so when FKA twigs leans into the Mary Magdalene story as the thematic subtext of her album - which in the text is implied to focus on her complicated relationship and breakup from Robert Pattinson, all of which was overexposed by the tabloids, you can tell there's some meat to that parallel, especially when you factor in race. So when you have a song like the title track here - which also immediately sketches the Kate Bush comparison in the opening lines and vocal delivery - where FKA twigs plays with all conceptions of Mary Magdalene and is even willing to imply there may be a messy truth in all of it, the most telling lines come in the outro, 'you didn't hear me when I told you'. And that's at the root of what I do really like about the writing of this album: not an excuse for flaws or bad decisions, but asserting that she deserves a role in telling her own damn story. 

It just becomes frustrating that when you start trying to sketch out said story, it's frustratingly fractured, both in lyrics and production. I focused so much on the Mary Magdalene connection to the themes because when you step away from it, the album starts feeling more tenuous in its reliance on subtext for its punch, from the saturation of FKA twigs' depression across 'sad day' and especially 'daybed' to the mixed framing of sexual release on 'holy terrain', where it might make sense that she got Future to play the darker id, but his presence feels glaringly out-of-place with the starkly feminine vibe of the entire project, and his verse isn't that far removed from the nihilistic wallow that all his verses can be. But more to the point, when you start trying to assemble the disparate elements of the breakup described in the text, it doesn't really build to more of a revelation or fuse all that well with the heavier Mary Magdalene story outside of lingering affection she's clinging to despite a mess of selfishness, miscommunications and lies. All of which makes sense for a very self-contained human story of frailty that can feel tenuous with what we know about Mary Magdalene both historical and otherwise... and which also runs headlong into the production, which is straining to split the difference between spare, atmospheric but intense intimacy, and bombast that's damn near Biblical, and it leads to some intense tonal whiplash. Don't get me wrong, the muted lo-fi sample that almost sounds like rain against the synth strings and faint flutter of guitar on 'sad day' is stunning against the main melody... and yet you can tell the song is shuddering to go full PC Music bombast with the warped percussion, and that's after all the watery but blown out vocal layering on 'home with you' off the pianos. Or take the crushing bombast of 'fallen alien' with the wails of synth, and one of the cases where the child choir actually works against the pummeling groove - it's a terrifyingly potent song that shows exactly how far FKA twigs can take her experimentation, so it feels jarring to precede it with a surprisingly rote if well-produced trap song on 'holy terrain', the most Bjork-esque cascades to date on the title track', and then follow it with the half-assembled clunky warp of 'mirrored heart', even if I love her vocals there. That's the other frustration: for as much as FKA twigs is a stunning singer, when you get tunes like 'daybed' with the spare, offkey warbles from Oneohtrix Point Never, I'm stuck wondering if she'd be better off chasing weirdness with alien tones that are nevertheless on key to match to her delivery rather than a more restrained melody that's just 'off' - it's one reason I like the classical allusions behind 'thousand eyes' and the title track as much as I do.

But here's the thing: I get the feeling that FKA twigs is entirely aware of the parallels and contradictions of her storytelling and choice of theme - capturing the intimacy of human angst and love swollen to greater meaning by masses seeking to claim and define a narrative that they do not grasp but want to possess. And there was always going to be incredible thematic tension between the weight of that history and the humanity swallowed within it - and while FKA twigs is a performer strong enough to hold that tension, the production and especially the writing doesn't really hit that balance. And while individual moments absolutely get there and stand among some of her best - 'sad day', the title track, 'fallen alien' - the project as a whole feels too diffuse and unbalanced to truly knock it out of the park, which is why I'm giving this an extremely strong 7/10 and a recommendation, but not a full-fledged one. Still a fascinating and challenging listen, though, especially if you know your Christian apocrypha, canonical or otherwise - so yeah, if only because I want to see more artists delve into this particular niche of history, check it out - cool stuff.

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