FKA Twigs: A mystery that's worth solving

An artist with vision: FKA Twigs has produced an album that stands out in an overcrowded market.

An artist with vision: FKA Twigs has produced an album that stands out in an overcrowded market.

It increasingly feels as though trying to nurture an atmosphere of mystery in pop isn’t worth the bother. For years, it was taken as read that pop music was a kind of theatre of dreams in which people could reinvent themselves.

In the age of social media, it doesn’t work: however long you spend cultivating an intriguing persona, someone is guaranteed to swiftly pop up gleefully brandishing the mundane truth about you. When they do, it can damage your career.

It perhaps says something about the power of the music of FKA Twigs that her standing seems to have been unaffected by the discovery of the prosaic figure behind the enigmatic press shots and adventurous videos, the shock revelation that her records aren’t really made by a shape-shifting cyborg or dead-eyed mannequin. In fact, they’re the work of 26-year-old Tahliah Barnett, a dancer from Cheltenham, southwest England, whose previous brush with fame involved appearing in the videos for Do It Like a Dude and Price Tag by the legendarily enigmatic Jessie J.

Moreover, enthusiasm for her work seems to have been undimmed by the subgenre of alt-R&B reaching a kind of saturation point. From the Weeknd’s reinvention of the priapic R&B loverman to the countless indie artists knowingly dabbling, there’s been an awful lot of it made in recent years.

That FKA Twigs’ releases to date have been met with excitement rather than ennui tells you a lot about how singular the music she makes is. LP1 opens with the kind of choral singing that normally heralds imminent death in a film about demonic possession, rather than an album full of R&B slow jams. 

The arrangements short-circuit, lapsing into discord or silence; disconnected sounds suddenly arrive out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly; the beats appear so scattered and sporadically that it’s hard to grasp exactly what’s going on rhythmically.

As you might expect, this approach works best when there’s a strong melody at the centre of it all. At its least appealing, as on Numbers, LP1 sounds like a load of quirky sonic ideas scampering about in desperate search of a song to cling to — there are moments when the sudden bursts of noise and discordant sound irritatingly intrusive. But when the tunes match the invention of the production, LP1 is genuinely brilliant.

The chorus of Lights On gleams brightly through the disorientating clatter, and Two Weeks sounds thrillingly like a hit record that’s being allowed to unravel before your ears.

The one similarity between Barnett’s work and that of the Weeknd is their shared interest in subverting R&B stereotypes: while the Weeknd casts the amoral, moneyed “playa” in a disturbing new light, Barnett’s songs offer a distinctive take on the traditional female roles of seductress and wronged woman. 

The sirens she portrays are frequently confused and vulnerable. Their sexual assertiveness is underscored by self-doubt, which seems a pretty realistic depiction of sexual assertiveness, regardless of gender: “When I trust you/ we can do it/ with the lights on.” At other times, they seem faintly terrifying, lust bordering on obsessiveness. 

“I could kiss you for hours,” she sings, her voice gradually slowed down until it sounds like a threat: you’re not sure whether the recipient of her affections should willingly submit to her charms or get their number changed.

Her wronged women, meanwhile, aren’t resilient I Will Survive types: they sound utterly crushed. “You lie/ and you lie/ and you lie ... I can’t recognise me,” complains Video Girl, before the song grinds slowly to a halt, as if collapsing entirely. 

The abandoned protagonist of the closing Kicks elects to take matters into her own hands, so to speak. “I don’t need you/ I love my touch/ know just what to do/ so I tell myself/ it’s cool,” sings Barnett, bringing 45 minutes of confusing, fumbled come-ons and romantic disappointment to an impressively bathetic conclusion by giving up and having a wank instead.

It almost goes without saying that not many albums of any genre end like that. But then not many albums sound like LP1, a singular piece of work in an overcrowded market.

It has its flaws — as you might have intuited from the videos and press shots, they largely stem from trying a bit too hard — but you leave it convinced that FKA Twigs is an artist possessed of a genuinely strong and unique vision, one that doesn’t need bolstering with an aura of mystique. Given the times we live in, that’s probably just as well. — © Guardian News & Media 2014

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